Midnight in Manchester/Back to the Farm

Midnight In Manchester/Welcome to the Farm

            The day had gone on too long. Tooooo toooooo long. Up early for a massive blood draw, deadlines, deadlines, phone calls, errands, racing around, events. Events. No, EVENTS. Things to be taken entirely too seriously, like Don Henley allowing select tracks from his album to be played. And more writing, more talking on the phone, more throwing things in bags and then throwing them in the car.

            It isn’t quite humid as the last trip from stoop to car begins, alaram bleep bleep bleep-ing in my wake. It isn’t hot, but the heat is present. It penetrates my skin as I slide into the car, adjust the rearview mirror, wonder if I need the air conditioning. After a long day, the artificial cool creates a suspended state of not real.

            A drop of sweat rolls between my breasts. I smile. I’m glad to be alive, feeling the warm collected moistness passing over my flesh. I am leaving, changing the energy, doing something perpendicular to my life.

            Even the tires grab the night pavement with a little more stick to it, rolling smooth, but taking the road. The wheels turn and turn, the blinker blinks, the night lays velvet before me. 

            I am on Harding Road, passing by modest rectangle boxes and sweeping trees, street lights raining gold cones down onto the dark blue sedan boring into the night. Only a few sets of headlights approach, moving with the same purpose I am. Night drivers have places to be – or else they’re out-running something that plagues their mind.

            Me? I’m going to Bonnaroo. Manchester, Tennssee. The gathering of tribes... tribes of music lovers, of kindred spirits, young people merging in their youth, old people celebrating all the life they’ve lived, hippies, comedy junkies, Yuppies trying to remember when they still had idealism (or not), ravers, film-types, partiers, food truckers, ecology-minded types... All headed to the Farm, all looking for three solid days of wandering from stage-to-stage of rap, rock, soul, alt-anything, bluegrass, hybrids, silent discos, Christmas Lounges, Unicorn Ring Toss, giant mushroom fountains to frolic under – and so much more.

            Bonnaroo. Strangest place I’ve every been. With the mud and the dirt and the dust. The heat and the cool of night. The blazing sun, the fluffy clouds, the burning turquoise of the sky on a clear day. I go alone, I am never a stranger.
            Everyone is happy to talk, to share their thoughts on bands they love, things they think are important. Whatever you want – except a five star hotel – it’s there. Open your mind, your eyes, your heart. Look around.

            I-24 takes you east, past where the Nashville boom trickles to nothing – and the night is black save more rectangles, splashed with light. These boxes are two-dimensional, versus the 3-D ranch houses I left behind. They promote off-brand motels, cheap gas, lower-tier syndicated food.

            The night is silent, save Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free. Austere, acoustic, but strong. Dignity flows from his character sketches of less thans and not quites, all proud sorts in threadbare places. He knows just how I feel.

            The night before I’d been watching the country music glitterati and D Listers like Hulk Hogan’s daughter and some “Dancers with the Stars” stand around being fabulous for the sake of an awards show that forgot music should be the point. It’s more about gags and ruffles of culture wow. My head was numb and the white noise of gossip being made more important than it was because the talkers needed to believe it mattered turned to white noise six inches from my face.

            Now I am slicing through the night, watching my directions, looking for exit 114. To make the Left, then another Left at the O’Charley’s, seeking the Coffee County Convention Center, tucked behind a Holiday Inn Express.

            In spite of specificity, I miss the turn. A quarter mile later, down a road blacker than a coal mine, I find a place to turn around. A sun-burned 70s van, like something from “Scooby Doo” sits in the yard, otherwise, no sign of motion exists anywhere.

            Retracing, laughing, moon roof open, stars watching my every move, I turn where it seems unlikely. I am right, and veering away from the Starbucks, the road swings a little wide, and there – like an oasis in the desert – it is.

            Check-in is 24/7. Convince the parking attendants you belong, they let you park – and you can go inside. I don’t need much scamming. Someone who looks like me, here at this hour, I must be where I belong.

            Slide into a parking spot in the first row. Hands on the wheel, I exhale. Tell Isbell I’ll be right back. Turn the car off, check to make sure I’m truly all here. All right in one spot, in Manchester, Tennessee, in the light heat and heavily quiet night.

            A two-story brick building, bathed in fluorescent light, it has that blue/green unworldly glow as you approach. Almost like the underside of a fish’s belly inside rusty red angles that hold every minor league trade show and event that matters ‘round here.

            But walking in, past the three sleepy-eyed volunteers finishing their shift, hoping to catch some EDM before the music shuts down for the night, the light turns back to yellow in the big rooms. Signs say “Artist Check In,” “Roll Like A Rock Star,” “Media,” “Guests” and “Guests with an Artist.”

            I find the line for Media, and there is no line. Emily, kohl-rimmed eyes and dark bangs swinging across her brow like a willow bows in a breeze, looks up and smiles. “ID.”

            Handing over my license, I say, “You guys are still here. Amazing...”

            “We’re the all night crew,” she cheers.

            “Good thing. It let me get away late...”

            “Away from...”
            “Nashville.”

            “Yeah, me, too.”

            We start talking about escape from Music Fest, from the incoming hoard, from the big corporate reality that co-opted the sweetness of Fan Fair at the Fairgrounds, with the concerts on the Speedway where stock cars race at deafening sound levels otherwise.
            “I normally work the awards,” she tells me. “Co-ordinate the co-ordinators, but CMT had a blood bath, so they can’t pay anyone any more.”

            I smile. I feel no need to get into. She looks far happier to be here. I understand. She’s 20-something, knows more than she should and has perhaps learned too much about corporate reality to buy into the conventional wisdom of what must be done. She just knows she’d worked hard for them, but it didn’t matter.

            We laugh about how there’s always something going on at the ‘Roo. She checks the schedule, gives me four options. She says, “Or you can just go to bed.” I must look as tired as I feel.

            “Yeah, maybe,” I say, not wanting to seem old.

            But she’s right. And I know it. There are three full days ahead. Days of magic, days of music, days of fun and memories to be made.

            Lee Ann Womack’s brought her family, lured by this other world she’s never seen. She’s been darting in and out of festivals for the day over the last few years, immersing in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass the last two. She is as curious as they come.

 

            Crossing back over 24, I see the Waffle House and Krystal, knowing my hotel is somewhere behind. I miss the mildew-smelling hotel of two years ago with the giant Buddha head fountain, but that was not where I was assigned. No, instead, it’s some truckers bit of faux-cozy, with rockers on the porch and a picket fence around the flowers.

            It is another box of boxes for the tired and the traveling. The lady at the desk has my keys and a smile, tells me where breakfast is – and the fastest route to my room. For Manchester, this is a big few days for their economy; if the work is long and intense, they’re glad for the money coming in and they welcome you.

            Grabbing a cart, I go out and unload the car. Roll it across the tar-patched lot and through the sliding doors, down a hall and around a corner. The room is basic blond wood Colonial, a Ritz Carlton compared to last time.

            Humming to myself, the world has turned again. I am somewhere else not my own, ready to see, to touch, to taste, to hear it all – and nothing feels more hopeful or quite so alive. And so Bonnaroo begins again.

For the Love of Richard Corliss: "Everything's Worth Seeing"

Richard Corliss spent 35 year's as TIME's movie critic. In films, he saw life, love, hope. In his friendship with me, there was country music, good books & a whole lot of charming conversations. Losing him broke my heart -- and made me remember the grace of truly amazing unlikely friendships.
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My Friend Charlie: Real Life, Raw Rock & the Impossible Gulf In Between

My friend Charlie used to be a rock star, only I didn’t know him then. Maybe I interviewed him once, at WVUM – “the Voice of the University of Miami” – when college radio was the life force of punk rock, throbbing funk and other alternative forms of music and I was answering to the Administration-chapping Angel Dust.

Not that I didn’t know who he was, or why he mattered. If indeed I did interview him, and it’s possible, very possible in the blur of 8 or 9 different writing outlets where I freelanced, most likely we talked about making it burn, the blunt force of punk, the blue collar ethos being insurrected to create something both snide and liberating.            

Like I said, I’m not sure. But I do know he held a stage with indomitable swagger, guitar slung low, eyes raking the crowd, taking them in, assessing their weakness and seeking their reaction points. It was more than just the thrust of a brutal downstroke, the searing twist of an acidic lead guitar line, the husky bark of a man spent and still giving it all away, it was about the moment when the foment goes exponential, the pressure explodes in a million shards into a release and relief that leaves it all... right... there...            

Charlie Pickett could do that. “If This Is Love (Can I GetMy Money Back)” was as surly and taunting as it got. A lesser man would’ve played it for camp, Pickett – working in a stone yard, working a loader in the relentless Florida sun – knew how hard physical labor can be, and he brought that weight with him as the words burst vitriolic from his drawn lips.            

“If this is love, can I get my money back,
“I want to see the man in charge,” he seethed.            
“If this is love, I want my money back,            
“I want an honorable discharge...”

He wasn’t joking. If the Delta of Venus was the one thing that could abate the aching muscles and excruciating tedium, it wasn’t worth the tourniquet clamp of whatever comely vixen he’d pledged his virility to. Virility, it was implied by the sweating mass of average body toned by blue collar work, that was hard won and forged in very real ways.

Pickett wasn’t a pretty boy, wasn’t a poofter, wasn’t a preening punk proposition like those nancy boys on MTV who’d eventually inspire Mark Knopfler’s caustic “Money for Nothing.” No, he was a pock-mocked blond with good bone structure you wouldn’t notice in line at Wolfie Cohen’s all-night deli if you didn’t know who he was. Even then, limp and damp, he’d be easy to miss in his banged up boots and slack shirt tail.            

But strap on that guitar, and he was lionic. Yes, lionic: iconic like a lion.            

There was nothing that was coming between him and the back wall. He wasn’t gonna blink, sweat, flinch or falter. Like that heavy machinery he ran all day long, he was coming through, dozing you down in the process. It was... incredible.            

In a place where rock didn’t live, let alone leave, where Miami Sound Machine was big in Puerto Rico and South America and KC and his Sunshine Band were well-past shelf-life, Charlie Pickett pricked up the ears of Britain’s New Musical Express; he stunned Peter Buck into producing an album for Minneapolis’ indie cred temple TwinTone Records – and he exported the pile-driving, sand blasting blues-anchored garage squawk like it was cocaine headed for Studio 54.            

For a moment, it felt as if... Then midnight came, the second hand swept past 5, 10, 15 and there was no glass slipper, no golden Doc Martin, not even a second hand van idling at the back door to haul them back to Miami. Or rather the mockingly real Hollywood, Florida, where a life of back breaking work awaited.            

So another rock & roll dream runs out, another talented soldier in the realm of feedback and stun goes home. If not wounded, the ones who get so close to the sun go blind from the exposure – and assimilation is a rough prospect at best.            

And that was that. Like Fred Flintstone into the tar pits,Charlie Pickett was gone. Perhaps a waft or suggestion of his gritty undertow in the Del-Lords plain Jane rock combustion, X’s frenetic grind, maybe the Replacements’ reckless hurling. But Pickett had a nobility and dignity that came from all those hours with the clock punched and the honest work done; alas, he’d had his moment, lived it out – and disappeared.            

Well, they never disappear. Not really. Live at the Button!, Cowboy Junkie A Go Go and Route 33 followed me to California, rotten sonics and squalling buzz-guitars turned up too loud, flaring like electric razor wire in a tropical storm across the oppressive blanket of heat that defined the Santa Ana winds’ foreboding stillness. On those afternoons, when nothing was moving, that white noise would be the texture of the space around me – sprawled in shorts and a barely there tee across the mauve cotton couch waiting for inspiration or some pop star to call for an interview for YM orRockbill or The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.            

Real raw rock & roll was in rare supply just then, the most poufy hair’n’clothes-driven days of MTV’s fantasyscape of exoticism, leather, spandex and cars. The idea of strapping it on and making it happen was kinda like stalking unicorns or fairies: a notion, but nothing to actually do.            

So a Midwestern girl with a taste for getting drilled into the wall by my records, the most raucous part of the Stones, Thin Lizzy in rut, MC5’s shrapnel’n’combustion or Lou Reed at his crankiest, had nowhere to go, nothing to find. Except the past, the brazen jarring of the things I knew, the things punk in all their ramped up velocity didn’t have the slow pressure to make last.


Yes, the Dead Kennedys churned hard, the Ramones were amphetamined poppers, the Plasmatics offered a chain saw ploddery. Even the Sex Pistols, in all their spitting and sneering bellicosity, couldn’t make the impact last.            

Maybe the Eggs weren’t interested in catching that train, where there were no rules and no reasons to shut down. Maybe it’s ‘cause they really were outsiders, regular working class kids for whom the glitter was too effeminate, for whom the sloppiness was an affront to what they could do. And working class kids, especially of a certain era, took pride in the workmanship.            

Besides, they saw no reason to copy what already was. Pickett reached back, took a fistful of hardcore roots blues, brought in the same garage pop that Springsteen mined to Spectorian effect, looked to British bands and his own need to punch through the walls and those hands that would hold him down. 

There was nothing high-handed or –minded to his songs. Some captured the lower rungs of Miami: “Overtown” and overt redneckery; other short blasts of beat’n’lash took on a fraught, almost skeevy sexuality – where Seka and self-pleasure were as reasonable as the kind of rank girl who’d say “yes.” It was the squalid, breaking down, city in conflict reality that defined South Florida in the ‘80s – bristling with that same agitation beneath the surface. 

Just cause you don’t see’em, it doesn’t mean they don’t go away. The music lasts, endures, indeed marks you – and that’s what actually matters. I never gave up on rock & roll, especially the kind that would pummel me without too much required.            

Never as heavy as Motorhead or Metallica, it got the job done. No matter where, no matter how.  Music made for the sake of the grind, driven to release, rendered as a way to wring out every bit of frustration, disappointment and the weight of a world that doesn’t care about you. Workingman’s blues, indeed, only they weren’t blue, they were raging, snarling in the face of being overlooked and out of options.            

As long as there was feedback, cheap amps and a reason to punch the night, this music – delivered by a band playing for its life; sung in Pickett’s flat, affect-less drone that was equal parts rusty hinge and old creaky floor board -- existed solely to declare it’s here, and it won’t balk, buckle or run. When all you got’s a back to the wall, muscles that throb and a woman who’s more trouble than the sex is worth, that’s deliverance with a wicked backbeat.            

As is often the twist, a copy of Bloodshot’s compilation Bar Band Americanus arrived at my house in a plain brown wrapper. Two decades later, it was as visceral and as brutal a kick to the knee cap as it was when I was a kid. Only now -- enough miles for life to weigh me down and the bullshit wear me out, the songs had all the same ur ngency, all the snide asides of Saturday night at the corner of nowhere and dead end when you’re young and so alive.            

Smiling, I marveled that after everything, some delights remain as electric as if they’re fireworks just hitting the sky. When the rock is real, and pure, and ragged, it doesn’t flatten under hubris, bloat or years, instead it sizzles with a life-or-death intensity that’s compounded over the time.            

And don’t get me wrong: these sides still sounded pretty rough. It’s not the amped, ramped, compressed and jacked up re-mastering so much current music gets. But the primal force overwhelmed all, as I drove north to the Rock & Roll Capitol of the World Cleveland, Ohio, the place where I came to understand the torque and the shove that pushed rock music to create such a freewheeling discharge of all that weighs you down, exhilarating the same way pressing the gas into a curve can.

There is a communion between the road, the ramping up of velocity for a car or a cd, the merge of both and how rubber grabs the pavement and turns over. It will pull you from inertia, hurl you against the moment.  

I smiled. As Springsteen would say, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Just as you’re sure you’ve lost the faith or the thrill of a rhythm guitar slashed just so, an electric writhing against the tracks ... You’re sure you know too much to believe... You stumble, thinking Thomas’ side is a projection and the postman always rings twice...            

Just as suddenly, you’re driving too fast, pushing the curves and hitting Cincinnati an hour too early. The harder you go, the faster you fly.            

That was that. The miles fell away, and soon I was home.             

Funny thing about life, or rather my life. The converging and merging of lanes and airports, deadlines and stories, superstars and freaked out handlers, paths cross and fall away from all sorts of people. Somewhere out there, Charlie Pickett and I fell into each other. Not through a publicist setting up an interview, nor some “I can make it happen” handler looking for a poll position; most likely not even through Facebook’s “People You May Know” function... Maybe a mutual friend, possibly an email sent to many. But somehow we were having the occasional exchange without actual conversation.            

Spending time in South Florida, the land of Lilly Pulitzer and my best friend Kathie’s store C. Orrico, the merge was almost inevitable. Yet, passing through so many places – and never seeing many people – it wasn’t a mandate. More a leaf floating by my window: weightless, pretty, but something I’d never catch.            

There are those who have theories: we reach out to specters from our past, hoping to recapture who we were, reclaim what was lost or right whatever was wrong, truncated or broken. I’ve never been one of those. Though there’s a balmy warmth to what we remember, it’s about where we’re going, how life translates in here and now that matters.

And what kind of here and now could there be? A gentleman lawyer who hung up the all-night drives and sleeping on floors for an intellectual solidity, the music critic/songwriter/artist developer whose roots can be found dangling in the wind like some kind of untamed orchid?            

Charlie Pickett didn’t remember me, either, sitting on a stool at Hamburger Heaven, the long gone lunch spot on South County Road. Cheeseburgers before us, we talked about the days when 27 Birds roiled with bands, fans, alternative realities, beats like pistons and rockers hitting the stage every 55 minutes on the dime. We laughed about Johnny Depp and his band the Kidz, one more local denizen that was probably never gonna be more, the promoter Richard Shelter who wore combat boots in summer and embraced Black Flag and the Circle Jerks long before they mattered, as well as the long-lamented not even almosts the Eat, the Bobs, the Cichlids, so good and absolutely unable to connect to the larger picture.

We talked about where rock & roll takes you, where it leaves you, how it is a force almost greater than life itself. A student of the game, he asked about Rolling Stone, CREEM, theLA and New York Times, a host of other publications – and we laughed about how important some of those magazines could be.            

And then he paid the check, and we hugged, and that was that. I’d send him my essays, seemingly always celebrating someone who had died. He’d respond thoughtfully, showing both compassion for my loss and insight into the human spirit that I’d captured.            

And that was that, too.

Though when I’d go to South Florida, sometimes we’d have another lunch, somewhere unconventional, yet always tangential to my life. The conversations would expand to talk of life as a dad, as a lawyer, as a husband and as a rocker who really didn’t rock the way people expect. Me, I’d talk about Artist Development, which isn’t branding, tell stories about how the music is realized in the humanity and the battering of shoddy reporting oversimplifying to where it misrepresented the real essence of the story. Me, being me, I’d tell funny stories about the adventures of working with big stars – and he’d laugh, then counter with the reality of a little band on a hardcore indie with a player who’d need to cop.            

Over time, I started spilling secrets like a toppled glass of cote du rhone, stories going everywhere, staining the encounter and making me think about where I’d been. Funny how talking to the ones removed can sometimes bring you into a deeper focus of your own life.            

Over time, Charlie Pickett started running songs by me. Or rather the tracks, looking for words. I would push back, trying to know his heart, his need to express.

Unlike anything I normally write, yet somehow throbbingly alive: those few chunks of lyric, essences of experience, insight, feelings. Things that were heavy, bore down, lumbered. Things that captured his (other)world – the places that’re stripped to the bone, the shard of truth that cuts through it all.

Ironic. My friends met Mr. Pickett and his exotic black dahlia of a wife at a dinner party. They found him charming, evolved, settled, elegant. Every one of them had a hard time believing this was the sneering, stolid punk force that once held stages with that jarring blues slam’nbam.

“Really? I just can’t believe it,” said one of the other C. Orricos, dumbfounded.           
The publisher of The Palm Beach Daily News concurred, “But he was so lovely – and that music was so, well, uhm...you’re the critic.”            

And it’s true. The man they beheld was cultured, erudite, president of his law review, something undertaken well-past rock prime and certainly far enough into adulthood to scent with a bit of desperation.            

But that’s the thing about the fury of rock & roll: it fires you in ways other things can’t. Not revenge, not hate, not rage. When you rock from the core, you push in a way that is unassailable, you apply yourself like there’s no other option.            

Which is the funniest thing about my friend Charlie. He outran the obvious. Rather than a burned out cliche, one more bitter shoulda coulda woulda, he took that blunt force and transformed himself. Even more importantly, he never let go.            

See, there are plenty of wanna be and almost weres who find a place on the fringe and exhale their how big they were, polishing the done wrongs and bad breaks to a blinding glow – casting that brightness in a way that you can’t see their part in it.            

Charlie Pickkett was probably too primitive and raw to be a glossed over MTV commodity. That purity made REM’s guitar swain Pete Buck weak in the knees, producing a Picket & the MC3 collection for Twin/Tone at the height of the Athens’ band’s ascendance.           

Pickett wasn’t gonna buckle or fold or compromise. He was gonna rock out, hard, loud, proud and unrepentant. And when it didn’t work, he was gonna live his life the same way: not a shadow of what wasn’t, trying to convince everyone how it ought to have been.            

That swagger is tempered by the knowing how much, how hard he can. When you do, you don’t need to flex or throw down. You can talk quiet, meet peoples’ eyes without challenge, find your way without being obtrusive.           

I had a friend like Pickett once, who told me there wasn’t a three-legged dog I couldn’t bring home. Surely I understand the regional forces of music – Motown’s glorious rocker steeped in soul Stewart Francke, Pittsburgh’s silken rock poet Bill Deasy, Cleveland’s compass of the chambers of the heart Alex Bevan – but that doesn’t mean it’s my raison d’etre.            

Charlie Pickett was the last friend I needed. At least like that: a reclaimed punk with a fire in the belly, a life that was classically upwardly middle class America and a career to be respected. Too straight and too loud, and yet...

Sitting in a recording studio off a dead end street in a warehouse that was more storage unit than middle business, I watch him lay himself against the gnashing guitar parts again and again. Searching to find the scan beyond the blues, beyond the thrum for a song that tells men the real about how it goes... about checking macho posturing at the door, but taking control, being in charge, being the man, he’s looking for the hard delivery.            

I don’t wanna smile, because that tweaks the hoist. But I almost can’t help myself to hear someone willing to be that real, to enjoinder an actual manly response in a world of reductive roles that negate any real connection between the sexes. Because in the end, the most erotic zone is between your ears, and the real glory hole is what you take in aurally.            

Charlie Pickett has nothing to prove. He’s got no reason to do this beyond the surge of a song picking up steam, then pushing back hard. It’s not about what was, or could be; not about prancing around onstage as the locals cheer – remembering their own better days. 

No, what he does – beyond the court arguments and dry as parched wood briefs – is the essence of rock & roll for no reason beyond its own guts and glory. Even now, in an odd way, it’s about the girls... But not just getting them, keeping them: pleasuring them, bringing them to their knees the way a real honest to god king bee would.

Not that he’s on the hunt or the prowl... well, not for anything except the axis rock truly turns on. Pushing harder, throwing himself over the railing again and again, the punch of the line eludes him, but he keeps coming. Not for David Fricke, or Paul Westerberg or even his own ego, but for the reasons rock, when it’s right, matters.

Having spent too many years listening to record company people throw tired marketing plays at music they don’t understand, artists genuflecting to a marketplace that’s never been excavated or considered on a human basis, managers wanting to max the moment at 15-20 percent, I laugh. Raised on WMMS during its glory days, I know the difference – and just cause nobody else dares, that doesn’t mean I don’t know it when I see it.

Standing before me in a denim shirt, trying to find the emphasis point in the line, Charlie Pickett keeps hitting the words and pauses like baseballs at milk bottles lined up at the fair. Hard, precise, wild, a jumble of conflict with a singular purpose.

This isn’t for radio, or a tour, or even a big record release party. Rock & roll is his: a release and a church of some higher fire. Sometimes faith is its own reward; sometimes it’s shared amongst the true believers. And when you believe, it’s not the numbers that matter – only the kick inside.

But don’t tell that to the fancy people in the glass building where he practices the law and parses the legality of things we’ll never ever need to know. They’re sitting 19 floors above the Intercoastal, safe in a cocoon of neat, tidy privilege. It’s safe and warm and elevated, everything so many people want.

Given that, they don’t need to know about the glorious subversive nature of Charlie Pickett. That their star lawyer has a rock side isn’t relevant; they get that –without tremor -- when he clamps down in court, and they don’t even know why.

Sitting here in this unfinished wood paneled control room, maybe the why doesn’t matter, either. Knowing the thrust as it plunges in, stabbing the dead places and releasing the wild doesn’t require cognition – only surrender.

Surrender is easy when the guitars are loud, the beer’s cold and the singer’s howling: all you gotta do is let go. It may take a minute, a song, maybe two; but when you hit it full-tilt and manage the rise and the fall, it’s intevitable. In the court, on the stage, it’s all the same when the fire remains.

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

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

And so Bonnaroo ends, in a longform rain, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' brutal rock celebration if losers, outsiders, fringers & won't fit ins. After Sam Bush and Del McCoury, Ed Helms incredible melange of pickers'n'singers at the Bluegrass Situations' Jam, it reminds why music is the great tribal wave. And yes, there will be more impressions, but this... this is about the music.
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The night before the waking bleary-eyed, racked with pain from hauling a backpack with a computer, water, a book, sunscreen, a sweater for later... No booze, no drugs, no misadventure. Is it worth it? Is it worth Kat Powers, Reggie Watts, Jack Johnson, Dwight Yoakam, NAS, Preservayion Hall Jazz Band, et al? Yes, absolutely: it's worth it.
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Being a legend means never having to thinking about anyone else, especially when your handlers are high on their sense of power by proximity. And so we waited for Paul McCartney. No, not to see him, so we could leave the Bonnaroo grounds and go home to get a shower.
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Poscards From Bonnaroo, Four: Field Day Friday

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes, and so it continues.

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

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The Second Hit

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

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

How It Smells.

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

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

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The First Missive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

            “Tim Hensley just died,” he said somberly.

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

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

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

            It was inevitable.

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

            Indeed. Or yet. And how.

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

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

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

            You move, and move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Really?”

            “Absolutely.”

            And then she laughed, asked about freshening my drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.hollygleason.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 April 2013

 

Newtown, CT, Can You Hear My Crying? Trying to Make Sense of the Unthinkable Once More

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…”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlM72JLv9N8&feature=youtu.be

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?
No. But…


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

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

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

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

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

Patti didn’t need words. She had intonation.

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

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

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

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

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

And Patti was gifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes would flash.

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

I would try. He would refuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow Patti always knew. Always, always.

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

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

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

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

It was that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Patti?” he asked, quietly.

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

“She’s retiring,” he explained.

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

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

“Yes, she’s retiring,” he confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- 19 September 2012

 

 

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

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

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

“Jive Talking… telling me lies…”

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

“More than a woman… to…. meeeeeeeee…”

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

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

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

“Night fever… night fee-vurrrrrr….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to reconsider everything. Everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To not know is frustrating, but somehow sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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