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Wednesday
Feb202008

Here Be Bards & Dragons

It smelled… like patchouli and musk, the earth, hay, dirty hair, muslin flecked with dry sweat, rotting velvet and absolute anticipation. Not even knowing what the anticipation was for exactly, just that something - whatever it was - was about to happen. Not even really sure how one knew, beyond the strands of talk that trailed after golf pros and baby sitters; but somehow it was all happening, and the news had made it all the way to the plaid pleat'n'knee sock club.

In a lot of ways, there was nothing special about it. Local musicians, clustering together, encouraging one and other, sharing songs and stories on their way to nowhere much. But somewhere along the way, there was this guy - this guy with a voice that was shadows and Spanish moss, well-oiled leather and incense - and he understood how to conjure one's destiny with a small hole in the middle. A record… 33 1/3 rotations per minute, a foot in diameter, a whole world emerging from the black vinyl, a universe that made ephemeral and ethereal strangely tactile.

John Bassette knew things. Certainly about taking the power of making records into one's own hands - creating art for your sake and selling it directly to the people who would consume it with their ears. That was the pragmatism that both set a scene free and anchored it as something more than just local talent, but as an actual bona fide, real live scene of men and music that was happening.

Suddenly, Alex Bevan, who captured the reveling cry of underdog rebellion for the blue collar unseen with the exuberantly euphoric “Skinny (Little Boy From Cleveland, Ohio), ” had the aptly-named Springboard. So did Jim Ballard, with the churningly moody, brooding Thunderhead. And Deadly Ernest & the Honky Tonk Heroes held down jukeboxes with the gate-banging “Don't Make Me Laugh (While I'm Drinking) ” and held-up cash registers with their eponymous-labeled album. Quippy songster Charlie Wiener dropped the ribaldly-titled 12 Inches of Wiener “because it is 12 inches, and it is MY record, ” he'd say with a wink-- and even local rockers Wild Horses put out a 7” of staccato riffage that was as Stones as it was lurching reggae with their “Funky Poodle. ”

John Bassette understood the power of having something tangible. A record. A physical manifestation of one's songs that lingered after the singer was a whisper and gone. It must be true - if I read it, see it, buy it, then it leads to the notion that it must be real since I can put it on my record player…

And so John Bassette spun melodies with merlot chords and quivering time signatures into truths about the romance of life lived along the seams. But even more importantly, he imbued his world with wonder and the flicker of golden light against brocade tapestries hung to hide the water stains and oriental carpeting that was threadbare in places and unraveled in others. Magic. Everything about him was magical. POOF! And there he was: velvet hood, knee high boots of heavy, cracked mahogany leather and a voice that rolled effortlessly like the dry gentle thunder of summer. You know that sound, that rumble from somewhere deep inside, muffled by all that's between here and there, yet utterly epicentronic.

John Bassette could look at you, and everything else melted away. Leaning close, to ask your name again so he could get it right when he signed your record, you felt wrapped in a downy comforter of some kind of expensive satin… and you knew you were cherished, even if you'd never spoken before or would ever see him again.

That was some of the beauty of this bard, this troubadour of the Middlestwest. He valued all humanity, saw loveliness in the plainest exchanges. It shone through everything he did, permeated the songs that he wrote, even as he played songs that spoke of wondrous things - “Here Be Dragons” as beyond the realm as they came, yet somehow real when sang of them.

There was no limit to the flight of his fancy, just as there was no gap between where and how. “Hessler Street, ” a place most Clevelanders know at least in the passing, swelled to imbue grace to the impossibly common, offered some kind of head-spinning wonder and brought you down easy in the midst of it all.

He seemed mythic somehow. More, in a way… almost larger than life, though locked in a conversation about this club or that song, it was the drawing-in-and-drawing-near intimacy of someone you knew well and had no need reason for boundaries with. In that moment, he was just your size and a skosh more… his ability to seek your soul making him fit your reality, his aura - and he most certainly had one, and yes, it was absolutely purple - creating some larger than life sizing that made him a giant at the very same time.

Transmutable. In the moment. In the shadows. In the not even there. His potency and power was obvious any time a local musician delved a little deeper into their gift. Not so much because of an implied challenge - because if there's one thing that was unspoken anathema to the deep voiced musician, it was the notion of competitive creativity; no, for him, it was about how good can you make it, how far can you take it, how bright can you polish the gem that you've unearthed.

John Bassette made everyone better. As facile as Alex Bevan's wordplay was - and his “Have Another Laugh On Cleveland Blues” opened Newsweek's coverage of the city's bankruptcy all those years ago for its clever mocking of the place already impugned by Randy Newman's “Burn On Big River” - it was when he turned inside that his gift truly shone.

Alex Bevan had wings on the tips of his fingers, could pick the gentlest melodies, coaxing them tenderly from a banged up Martin guitar. That feather bed would nestle around love songs to Ohio's prettiest places: Athens, Ohio, the Grand River, a pretty figure skating girl with eyes like springtime skies and a long braid that flew out behind her…

Alex Bevan could also write about frustration and being thwarted (“Big City Women”), lift up the dreamers who would jettison security for a shot (“Rodeo Rider”) or never quite get secure (“Jazzbo”). He was willing to hold moments like fireflies in a jar (“Gunfighter's Smile”) and softly exhale through the wreckage of a relationship unraveling around him (“Autumn Melody”). Like his mentor, he wasn't afraid of the unruly or untidy things about humanity, the way the waves of what we want and how we lose it sometimes crash against each other on the beach that is our life…

And that was just a part of the gift John Bassette gave the local songwriters.

Because even invisible, the notion of anchoring all that music with DIY records - long before punk and the good folks at Twin/Tone made do-it-yourself viable - forged a community that went unspoken. And so it was, that everyone knew what everyone else was doing… projects unfurled… people came together in the name of recording, gigging, writing.

When Alex Bevan went to record Grand River Lullabye, his second Fiddler's Wynde project, no less than the Michael Stanley Band - fixing to set the attendance records at Northern Ohio's outdoor amphitheatre Blossom Music Center and also the Richfield Coliseum, where the NBA franchise the Cavaliers held court - came in to record the title track with the young man with the poet's shirt and the sunbeam smile.

It was that way. A magical time. One could turn up at any number of local taverns - and run into any number of local folkies, quaffing a few cold ones, talking about records, planning their next adventure. It was a scene, a real live genuine bona fide scene - and people would crane their heads to look at this one or that one, telling their party about some bit of triviality or minutiae they knew of the spotted songwriter.

If L. A. had the Troubadour, the Ash Grove, the Whiskey A Go-Go and all of the little clubs cluttered up and down Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, from the glistening ocean of Venice, Malibu, Marina Del Ray, the winding roads up Laurel and Beachwood Canyon, twisting their way to the over-the-top rush of Mulholland Drive, that magic quilt was the board for a dynamic merging and converging of talent. John David Souther and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur, Don Henley and Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, Bernie Leadon and David Lindley, Poco and Karla Bonoff were acolytes to a scene that existed at the flanks and hems of Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Cass Elliot and their ilk. The ones following the established superstars were as aspirational as Jim Ballard or the Buckeye Bisquit Band boys - who found a home on local club owner Dewey Forward's wildly inspired homegrown label - were in much the same vein to Bassette, who just moved like a shadow, but was every bit the forerunner of much of what went on.

Back then, it was simple. Innocent. Easy. Drink your beer, pound your tequila, marvel at Randy Newman's Rednecks, thrill the evolved locals who were able to hear the revelations in your songs… And if there was no big time record label component to feed the nation's radio, then the local scene would be enough; but it was every bit as interlaced and engaged as what went on in Southern California, where the songs were spun into gold and platinum, cocaine and lear jets, a soundtrack for a nation seeking a peaceful easy - if a bit exclusionary - feeling.

The local bards and folkies, troubadours and spinners of song in Cleveland had no chance of that. Even Stanley who lodged at Top 5 hit with his surging merging of populist urban rust beltism and heroic straight up rock never quite got his fingers locked on that brass ring. But in the purity of what they were singing and how they hung together, it didn't matter.

If that was all there was, it was plenty. The camaraderie, the joie de vivre, the high times, the lines sketched with chords and single notes, it added up to a fellowship of fellow travelers that fulfilled its own destiny.

Sometimes where we are is enough. Sitting wide-eyed under the stairs at Peabody's, drinking in the songs and stories as they unfurled like Japanese flower tea, it was the most alive place I could imagine. I didn't know much of what I was being regaled with firsthand - 14, awkward, steeped in dreams and wondering what life held - but I knew enough to know: this is magic.

The idea that songs were precious receptacles for our life, our love, our hopes and yes, our losses had already dawned on me. That people I could be in such close proximity to could create these wondrous bits of music and moments was almost unthinkable - except there they were. Right before me.

Out of that beaming amazement, friendships were forged… the recognition of the vision held between us of what it could all mean, Before too long, it would be drinking in taverns with these wild-eyed boys with their time to be killed until it was time to create again. Because, in the end - like all weavers of song - they were human and they were just like we were, except for the part where they stretched how the felt, the things they'd seen and witnessed across notes that rose and fell like the heaving of one's chest.

It is in the humanity that the songs took flight. These were people just like we were, yet somehow a bit more backlit. Shying back just the smallest amount, there was surely something different about them, something a little bit sparkly, a little bit more.

John Bassette taught us that - the local stars, the folks in the bars. He never came right out and told us, he just showed up and quietly was all that and then some. To see him, to hear him, to be enraptured by him was the understand that the power was your's - that all you had to do was dream or believe, and you could cast off on a sea of what might could should be, too.

You didn't need a cape or a hood, a deep throated moan or a guitar to take you there. You just had to know there was uniqueness like that within you, too, along with oceans of emotions that could be sailed with no fear or falter. All you had to do was smile and cast off right where you were sitting.

Those were the kind of things John Bassette taught us. With a net he cast into the sky, he hauled in stars of the every day sort - and everyone sparkled with that knowledge that all they had to do was commit to the how of where they are, then drift eyes wide open to the sun or moon as the time would have it.

It doesn't sound like much as I write it all down, but it was everything and perhaps even a little bit more. Lost afternoons, drinking green bottled beer or cheap red wine, laughing about nothing, bragging about even less. Breath held against the moment it was over - and a whole crop of boys with guitars and cockeyed smiles who lived to prove Bassette right every chance they got.

In that, a corporate housewife in gestation figured out she could go and do whatever the songs might offer. It wasn't what was expected of nd preordained for her, and there was no map to lead her on. But with that laugh and those shining eyes, the route was so much the clearer: follow the songs where they take you, they will not lead you wrong and you can believe in them whenever everything else fails and folds, betrays and falls apart at the seams.

All these years and miles later, I marvel at what I didn't know, and he didn't even have to consider. The truest companion isn't necessarily the singers, but the soundtracks that they leave - and somewhere just beyond Hessler Street, the traffic rolls along, a river of metal and rubber and glass.

The songs have survived past the singer. A drifter's life of dignity extinguished at 65, with rattling lungs and an erratic return address. The acolytes don't care about that, only the candle he held aloft to light the way: in his honor, they lift it up and pass it down. Somewhere a few states away, I smile and remember when - knowing that without those moments, the rest of my life just might not have turned out the way that is has.

After all, impossible dreams defy and mock you. It takes a true heart to lead you on… and if John Bassette had anything to lead with, it was a heart that shot through with all the things you could ever possibly want to behold.

He never even thought about the ripples… He left them to find the shore on their own. He liked to watch them bunch up and roll, but he knew they'd get where they were meant to be on their own. He had faith that it was enough, and it was.

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