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Monday
Feb182008

“Paradise”, John Prine

It was a seaside town, a little jewel somehow missed by time. Gulf side, clear water, cerulean on its best days, turtle green on its others. The houses are small and dear, the buildings low to the ground -- all slightly faded, not quite tired, just obviously lived in and loved.And in the Gulfport Casino -- a low ceilinged place with white twinkle lights, several burned out or fizzling like they're bout to and the kind of linoleum floors normally reserved for college cafeterias -- there are too many small pastries, pizzas, steamer trays of pasta, raw bar and coffee with 5 kinds of condiments. It is the bursting horn of plenty for a child of the Midwest, a former postman turned poet, an American institution who touches people's souls with his plainspoken beauty, insight and truth about lives lived beyond the blare and the glare of velvet ropes, klieg lights, bold faces and red carpets.

In that tiny space with the big windows and crimson-clothed tables, they have come from Ireland and Texas, Massachusetts and Memphis, New York City and Wisconsin -- all to celebrate the man who gave the world a haunted Viet Nam vet who accidentally became a martyr to his habit “Sam Stone, ” the alienated housewife shipwrecked with a now stranger who share return addresses and a last name and found a refuge in memory-based daydreams “Angel From Montgomery, ” the elderly couple forgotten by society of “Hello In There, ” the abandoned teenage girl of another era sent off to have her baby where no one would know in “Unwed Fathers” and sundry regular Joes who'll never quite get their fingers to close around the brass ring that is the American dream.

John Prine. Grammy winner. Regular guy. Candy heart. Dear soul. The original “next Bob Dylan. ” Singer/songwriter, no, the only singer/songwriter to be asked by the Poet Laureate to read at the Library of Congress. Proud father of 3. Devoted and exemplary husband of a woman he fell in love with when “I looked out the window one morning and saw her hanging my white shirts out on the line, and I just lost my heart.”

This is an incurable romantic, a believer in love. He is a beacon for old time values and vintage photos that are torn from today's life. With a mandolin and an accordion player, there's a band that can swing from almost cocktail jazz to Appalachian bluegrass to rocked up - and with a coterie of Americana's best kept not-so-secrets ranging from frequent duet partner Iris DeMent and her husband Greg Brown, Irish songbird Maura McConnell, plain as a picket fence rocker Pat McLaughlin, Joplinesque diva Jonelle Moser, silken songstress Beth Neilsen Chapman… a musical feast beyond compare.

And then Prine takes the stage himself. Tenderly embracing “Souvenirs, ” a song also recorded by his dear friend Steve Goodman, it is a song about recounting what was, ruing the way time only leaves trinkets -- and that's if you're able to hang on to them along they way. It is a bittersweet, melancholy - if measured -- song that reflects, “Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see/ That's why late last night and early mornings all look the same to me…”

Those lines are the kind of terracotta tile truth that is easily overlooked, yet absolutely what life is made of. Those lines tattooed countless pages of my textbooks in middle school, high school and college -- and obviously spoke to the core of Prine's perspective on living.

Yet, just as one would deify the man as a sage of the slightly antiquated values, the wry songwriter can bounce back with “Let's Talk Dirty In Hawaiian” or the insurrectively humorous rejection of consumer-driven living “Blow Up Your TV. ” Then there's the what-the-Hell-went-on reflection of “Jesus, The Missing Years, ” meandering and untangling what the Son of God explored when he went off the radar. Indeed, when Prine was striking a lyrical flint, he could make you laugh and think -- “Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore” an indictment of unthinking jingoistic patriotism, while “Some Humans Ain't Human” takes on the current administration's heartlessness as mirthfully as humanly possible.

Prine is a good sort. It is why he could write a song that has become such a standard people don't realize it's not traditional. “Paradise, ” known to casual but committed bluegrassers as “Daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County…” and environmentally-grounded casual lovers of music as “Mr. Peabody's Coal Train (has hauled it away…), ” is a song sung around campfires, at political rallies and bluegrass festivals well into three decades.

“Paradise” speaks of the demise of same. It is bucolic, almost Norman Rockwellian in its attention to detail -- “We'd shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles are all we would kill” -- and yet, clear-eyed by the demise of a lovely place at the hand of industrial greed. Deceptively melodic, it picks you up, carries you along, makes you smile. And then you listen…

Complicatedly direct. Simply, deadly accurate. Absolutely embracing the warmth of family, home, history roots. Spot-on aware of just what's being destroyed - and it's not just the land being strip-mined, but a way of American life that was the core of the nation's foundation.

How could one follow a song like “Souvenirs” at a black diamond party, a festivity to celebrate, commemorate six decades well-spent, completely lived? There was only one choice, and it was just to reach for the classic, but to make the standard take on an even deeper resonance. Having been serenaded by Fiona, his lovely Irish bride and her sister, feted by people who've been part of his life for so many years, he called his brothers Frank and Billy to the stage to share “Paradise” with him.

In that gesture, in that moment, it was obvious some ties do bind for life. There was clarity about the importance of family, of faith, of coming together from the strength and the glue of memories and moments and heritages shared. Regardless of the wages of strip-mining, the removal of sustainability of the coal-culture of Kentucky, blood lives on.

Sitting there, on my folding chair with my very best friend in the world, I felt uneasy. It had been a long week, hard meetings, professional betrayals, bad news, and yet - that wasn't it. Exhausted, yes, but this was something more, a kind of dread that foreshadows what you can't know, but will find out.

I looked at Kathie, always placid, always ready for a good time, always amazed by the kindness and the talent of the people I loved, and I shuddered. All I could think was “I hope this isn't the last time I see this sweet man… with the two young sons, the cancer that's been beaten, the songs left to write. ”

After all, Prine's songs had not only grown me up, they'd often defined my understanding of complex interpersonal emotional dynamics. Ex-fiancée #3 - the enchantingly nicknamed “BooBoo” -- had come as the result of his Cupid play so many years ago, and there had been long, sweet nights spent talking in too many countries to mention, backstages and hotel rooms and anywhere else we happened to find ourselves.

It was a world of unremarkable things becoming noteworthy: pork roasts, candlelight bowling, lost hours, Aqua Velva, ice tinkling in glasses, conversations that meandered around like oleander - sweet and tangled and seeking without a plan, yellow street lights and Wurlitzer jukeboxes, memories of once and then.

Then…

Having said hello and happy birthday, shared a brief exchange and drinking the love in the room in deeply, I vanished. It was enough. Whatever was ominous, I could not stop -- and I knew it.

There were fireworks at the end of a pier. Emerald and sapphire, diamonds and ruby. Flash and burst and pop, one after another -- the sparkling explosions of fairy dust that light up the night. Glittering celestial confirmation that our dear friend was, indeed, another year older, and we were the richer for it. Fading from there was easy.

Waking up at 7 was harder. Kathie asking if I was awake, making sure I was all there -- and able to understand, to comprehend.

“I tried to wake you at 2:30, ” she apologized, “but you were just too tired, too far asleep…”

It made no sense, the apologizing… and why would she try to wake me?

“Your aunt called, ” she explained to my mystified face. “Your mother has died…”

That was what it was: that feeling of premonition, that notion that someone was slipping away. My mother was sick, absolutely. Conflicting reports -- about why no more chemo, and me keeping score from somewhere beyond the bleachers.

But now it was done. Proof positive that even forces of nature eventually turn finite. My mother… Slipped away into the stars. Quietly. Quickly, by most accounts. Really just the way that she'd wanted it. But gone. Absolutely. Positively.

So complicated, really. Like the woman herself. A voracious consumer of all that the world offered her - deep passions, deeper discernment. She was a presence to be reckoned with: overwhelming, overpowering, over-the-top. Sometimes with her, you'd need to take cover just for survival. Like a hurricane, she was an absolute rush and a charge and a burst of adrenalin, but also there could be wreckage… and to get the charge, you had to be willing to withstand the damage.

One of a kind, she had striped hair set in a Palm Beach crash helmet, blue eye shadow and navy mascara, heavy lace racing stripes on her bright pastel summer shifts and an imperious demeanor that once made the Customs officials in Nassau think she was some kind of royalty. She liked that. Very much.

She eloped with my father, later becoming the subject of an article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Sunday Magazine bravely titled “I Taught My Bride To Golf. ” She'd had her appendix blow-up, leaving enough adhesions to make pregnancy a difficult proposition, yet when they found out she was pregnant, she thought naming me after the hotel where I was conceived was a suitable tribute to the site of fertility realized.

She loved George Feyer, who played society cocktail piano in the Rembrandt Room in Manhattan's elitely boutique Stanhope Hotel, but much preferred the old school standards of the Plaza and the Waldorf Astoria -- even if it meant an inside room. She believed in luxury, buying the best you can afford and making it last, not taking crap from anyone and having your way with the world, especially if it meant having the world on a string.

She didn't much care for swimming, though she certainly logged hours at the Shaker Heights Country Club's pool drinking innumerable iced teas until I could be at the pool on my own… and she believed in having lunch out every day, putting me on Cleveland, Ohio's good restaurant circuit each day after Nursery School.

This is a woman who responded to one of her friends commenting on my appearance in a Laurel School for Girls Lower School Christmas pageant as an angel, “Yeah, me, too… only the halo's a little tarnished and definitely tilted. ” There wasn't a joke she wouldn't crack, or a line she wouldn't push.

Always perfectly turned out. Never a hair -- or in her home a chair -- out of place, Ferol, affectionately known to many as “Fang” or “White Fang, ” defied logic. There was no end to the perfection of her execution -- her house was clean beyond sterile, decorated to the hilt and bordered on a museum for its al-things-in-their-place order and high level of taste, yet she had a thing for Junior League short-cut recipes, Marlboro 100s and Canadian Club on ice.

Taken as a whole, it's a very basic equation. My mother loved life. Completely. Utterly. There was nothing she wouldn't say -- and she was quick to laugh the loudest, tell the hardest truth, reach for the unthinkable. She didn't care… figured if you didn't shoot, you didn't score, and like Auntie Mame, it would take a fictitious character to get close to the woman with the high rise hair and the very large pillow cut sapphire, she knew life was a banquet and “most of you poor sons of bitches are starving to death. ”

In a world where people are often afraid to live, to truly live -- immerse and experience with every fiber of their being, my mother was fearless. That there was wreckage was part of the price, but to live wholly committed to whatever was before her was the only way. So, so be it.

Numbly, I took my shower and made my pilgrimage south to Naples and my Aunt Karen. We compared baseball cards of a life we'd both been part of. Each filling in pieces for the other, marveling at how much ground was both covered and scorched.

There was much to consider, images to be harvested and shared. Where my mother went, people rarely forgot. Yet like a too-many-faceted jewel, what you saw depended on where you stood. So many angles and reflected depths, you could loose your moorings without ever shifting position.

In that complicated presence, you take the bad with the good, sift for the truth, hope for the broader insights. When someone's being is as farflung, it's hard to hold close, to embrace -- and yet, that's all that left.

As the recognition hit me, a few scattered e-mails went out to friends -- all for varying reasons. Given that the funeral was going to be in Cleveland, naturally one went to Michael Stanley, my rock star who should have been the biggest friend mined from the blind of the internet over concern about a friend whose dream had also shipwrecked and was not coping at all.

Michael Stanley embodies the oxymoronic notion of the dignity of rock stars. He is elegant, gracious, heroic -- and yet oddly normal. He writes with an a razor-like insight, and he is not afraid to wade deep into the dynamics of life.

Though he holds the attendance record at Ohio's vast Blossom Music Center -- a beautifully groomed outdoor amphitheater where the biggest acts of summer al converge -- he never became the Springsteen, the Seger, the Mellencamp that he deserved to be. Yet within that, his writing only got better, his ability to sing from a settled and grounded place in a way that pulls back the veils and the filters have increased.

From the solidity of life lived in both the fast lane of celebrity and the mainstream of humanity, he casts his nets and pulls up lyrics that speak deeply. In his note of condolence, which was perfect, he offered me a piece of a song in the works…

"Relentless contradictions, are never far behind A gift you never asked for from some forgotten time A legacy of wonder... of sorrow, joy and pain... Same Blood, different vein..."

Who knows what a life means? Beyond whatever we produce. Maybe the best we can hope for are the memories we leave behind, the thoughts that jump to mind and make people smile, or laugh. There will be the people we touch, inspire, heal -- and yes, even hurt.

Sometimes the pain offers its own lessons. Not every learning experience comes from the good, and that is to be remembered. Sometimes the pain and pressure take out coal and make diamonds… black diamonds and White Fangs and girls who can still find their heart, their tears, the truths in a song.

It takes a lot of time to become young. It takes a lot of influences to find your voice. If you stay the course, hold the line, never turn away from what you are shown, there is a phoenix who will emerge from the flames and burned out cinders of what was.

And so, at the church where I was raised, baptized, first communion'ed and confirmed, my mother was laid to rest. Zelda the Wonderspaniel shared the mass. Alex Bevan, my first idol, sang of “Gunfighter's Smiles” and the promise of “better days” and “Silver Wings. ”

A gentle coterie of people who've passed through my life appeared, reminding me the power of even short times shared. A lady who worked at my first -- and only -- daily newspaper job. A man who created the original major label indie and gave the world Meatloaf, later proving that the little guy can take on a multi-national corporation if he's strong, resolved and willing to serve the truth. Girls that I'd gone to grade school with. A boy who said he spent his youth wondering what it would be like to kiss me, not to mention a rock star Southern belle journalist roman candle who'd driven in from Flint, Michigan and my best friend from Martha's Vineyard who is a quiet spring of resolution and strength… and the ever stoic, ever quietly strong Stanley.

Ronnie Dunn, with an intense gospel vein, is nominated for every award imaginable this CMA Awards for “Believe, ” a song that confesses, “You can't tell me that it all ends/ with a slow ride in a hearse…”

Dunn, and his partner Kix Brooks, kindly sent flowers. As did Ronnie's wife Janine, with a card that said, “She was a force of nature…” They know, and believe, the meaning is greater even than the lives that we touch…

My mother loved flowers, wanted them. An active volunteer, her attitude about death was “forget charity, I want every white flower in Cleveland. ” Every white flower -- and they came; came and came. From John and Fiona Prine, John David and Sara Souther, from an old boyfriend my mother couldn't stand and several of the great loves of my life, from the man who wrote “Anything But Mine” and my old friend Frank Liddell and his traditional thrush of a wife Lee Ann Womack -- a basket of half longstem roses and half spray orchids, from the people at CMT/MTV Networks, Sony/BMG Music and Capitol Nashville, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers, Manuel the man who made Elvis' solid gold suit and his son a designer rising in his own rite, a dealer of so many Warhols and the occasional Basquiat, the woman who made sportscasting safe for women and the most recent ex-fiancée who remains one of my dearest friends in the world.

White flowers. Roses. Hydrangeas. Agapanthus. Freesia. All kinds of orchids. Everywhere, and the occasional stalk of Bells of Ireland. Ivy, and pine, and stalks of holly. And a nose gay of lilies of the valley, to be put inside her casket.

We all mourn the way that best suits us. My mother wanted flowers, banks and fields of them -- and we did what we could. I live in the songs -- and tI needed to feel alive in this death.

So, there I was the night before, making a pilgrimage to a bar called the Sly Fox listening to a band called the Midlife Chryslers churn through one of the best surveys of rock's bedrock ever -- with a pair of guitars that stung, a sax that hung low and soulful, a keyboard that rose and fell and a bassline that undulated around the beat and the melody with that padded rubber bottom that makes music throb.

To hear the Stones' “Dead Flowers” done right, by a motley crew of true believers, is to bring it all back home. A song of acceptance, reality, brutality and an odd sort of deliverance by fire, it suited the moment. Covered with sweat, hips moving from side to side, Rolling Rock aloft in the air, it was the kind of recoil and release that a woman whose life was lived on eleven deserved.

Somewhere in the night, there was a hole -- and also a current of life coming back at us. It was the sort of transcendence that defies words, begs embracement, finds its own altitude. It was the bridge that carried me to where I needed to be, gave the resolve to sustain in the moments that followed.

Sitting crossed ankles in a velvet suit -- last worn for Johnny Cash's funeral to help my friends Rosanne and Hannah and all the rest of the Crowell clan feel stronger in the falter -- near President Garfield's tomb, I felt numb. I was confused and disoriented, trying to get my arms around it all.

I knew that I'd had a lunch at Ta-Boo on Worth Avenue with the publisher of The Palm Beach Daily News in her honor -- and bought an Hermes bangle with lions on it to mark her passing. I knew we were heading to the Shaker Heights Country Club for tenderloins on small rolls and chicken salad in puff pastry, which would make her smile.

It is all you can do, I guess. Hold on. Remember the things that would make them happy. Celebrate that lust for life with more life -- and wait for the realization to fall. Maybe, too, it's in our living that their embroidery of life goes on.

Certainly the songs do, which is why “late last night and early mornings all look the same to me. ”

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