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Monday
Feb252008

The Desert’s Quiet, Cleveland’s Cold

It's cold. Damn cold. The biting, frozen from the marrow out kinda cold that chills you 'til you shake, lips turning just the slightest bit purple. When the wind whips off the lake, down Euclid or Prospect or Carnegie Avenues, the arteries of commute from the East Side in, it tears your flesh -- without even making an incision.

Cleveland, Ohio on a winter's day is just that cold. Brittle. Brutal. Kinda like the way a diamond sparkles. And yet, vicious as that cold might be, Cleveland -- even in the winter -- is my home. Or rather where I come from, steel money and grand old buildings and ethnic neighborhoods that still are. Where I was forged... born and raised.

And so it is, that I'm in pink sweater and a pale blue scarf scratching at bus doors, trying to find an old friend in the name of a song. Not that he didn't know I was coming -- just that the cell phone wasn't working, and there was a merge between my past and farther back past that was fixing to be present, and sometimes it just ain't worth the chance of something going sideways.

It was an almost "as if" diesel sniffing moment, the kind where you know there's nothing you can say or do, knowing it doesn't matter that you're on the up and up - in an "Almost Famous" for everything moment, it's a rejoinder of "Top of the ramp with the other girls." Only there aren't any other girls. It's too cold even to be stalking the names on the ticket.

Still when you are as you are, you know in the end, it'll be okay. Give it a minute, it'll right itself; everything'll be fine. Give it a minute, and even a girl with vertigo can find the calibration -- because there's safe harbor in songs and old friends, the reasons to believe the human condition transcends, if you'll cast after the truly great writers.

Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Guy Clark -- in reverse alphabetical order -- are that. Each a voice distinctly, uniquely their own, and yet utterly embodying some facet of America that is universally noble, even if it's only in how it captures our imagination.

Joe Ely the rogue drifter, Someone who wandered up from "The Wild Ones," hellbent on making Mexico under a moon barely more than a sliver with a horse that's spent or hidden on top of a railcar. Rough hewn, a bit torn about the edges, intense and restless. Not for the faint of heart -- writing songs with a stiletto or straight razor across a heart of Spanish leather.

Guy Clark, the manliest of poets. Reserved and dignified in a way that makes a denim shirt seem formal, and rolling one's own cigarettes regal. He pulls truths from common things, shines light on grand realizations that seem like just another moment, offers heroism and sweeping love across moments so like our very own.

John Hiatt, the soul-grinder with the Ozzy Nelson touch. A voice like dredging the Mississippi, leaning into songs like it's the final turn -- and tempering the chunky funky zealous noise of the joyful perk with a turpentine soaked barn-board beauty of relentless fidelity, cavernous loss and devotion that makes a dog look fickle.

And Lyle Lovett, the quirky hipster haiku painter. With that low slung growl, courtly prowl and the ability to capture the most ephemeral feelings like fireflies in glass jars, he warps the lens, exaggerates the rhythms and rolls us along with him. Doleful like black Irish mourners, wry like Dorothy Parker and quick to connect dots that seemed like stars across the heavens, he can sail a magical tapestry of characters, details and truths as if he were merely breathing.

Together. Again, Just like the first time -- at the now long gone Bottomline in New York City, brought together by the then head of the Country Music Foundation, eventually to be the Director of the National Endowment of the Arts Bill Ivey almost almost two decades ago.

Two decades. Almost. These men intertwining the lives already lived so fully. Three Texans and a Hoosier. All "critically acclaimed." Legends pretty much to people who follow that stuff. Clark being, of course, the eminence grise -- and standard by which all other Texas singer/songwriters are measured; and Ely, the rocker from Lubbock who'd opened for the Clash when they first hit big, whose Honky Tonk Masquerade was a fierce insurrectionist treatise that captured ears but somehow never quite made him the rocker he wanted to be.

Hiatt, a veteran of the LA punk/country rock scene and a writer of merit -- even from a different side of the tracks, moved to Nashville to slow down and created the magical Bring The Family with its truth in the Norman Rockwell reality-based sketches. Lovett was the kid, a jazz merged with Texas songwriter aesthetics that had a sweetness that got in your veins and made you yearn for an innocence that was so blithely aware of what was around.

Even then, they all had lives and stories. Even then, they'd covered continents and miles. Even then, they'd dream and laugh and drink and wander -- wondering about how it all held together, seeking insight with their details and lost nights with those mornings that somehow always broke your heart.

If Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett were bound by anything, it was their willingness to see the truth, to own their stuff, to be willing to own up to what hurt, what stung, what brought them to their knees. In leather pants and a concho belt, Ely understood swagger -- and Hiatt's flannel shirt and khaki pants suburban camouflage was comfortably reassuring; Lyle was the uptown chic sleek sheik in his well cut suits and cowboy boots and well, Clark was a pressed white shirt, black vest, black jacket man most nights -- utterly elegant in his understated being.

Way too different, yet strikingly the same. Always ones to unravel the threads and then twist them together again, sometimes in lost bars in strange nations with all kinds of people inhaling the tales like air. And they talked even better, it must be said.

And their act -- though more the gracious easiness with which they open up their souls like guitar cases waiting for thrown money -- has gotten better with the passage of time. Or maybe it's that we've all had more time to find experiences that've been inside these songs, so we've learned them to be true, to have felt their core settle on moments all their own.

Which is how I found myself in Cleveland, in the bitter cold. I had come to pay off debts, seeking something I didn't know could be sought. Yet, as so often is when you live in the wind, it's not the roots that hold you up but the currents that blow you from place to place -- if you'll relax enough to ride them.

There was a singer once, a folkie. From my hometown, too. Had a quasi-rave-up spoken-word party vamp about being "a skinny little boy from Cleveland, Ohio, come to chase your women & drink your beer." It was quite festive and the party hearty college boys liked chanting it with staggeringly eroded grasp of the consonants anywhere cheap Pabst or whatever 3-2 was being tapped could be found.

And the rallying cry was fine, but it didn't tell the story. No, no; this man crafted intricate little gems of exquisite detail, and put them together on actual vinyl records for his own Fiddler's Wynde label. I was beguiled by bridges that soothed, "Sweet child I hear you been crying, leave your sorrow far behind when you're through/ Each mile, no matter how winding, leads me/ Home is where my heart is, my heart stays with you" and songs about "Gunfighters Smile"s that summed up everything about the way that I'd come to live beyond the shadows, somehow forgotten in the far corners of the night.

"Gunfighter's Smile" was a celebration and an elegy and a manifesto by which I seemed to live, a kid with licorice whip legs and a ponytail whipping around as that golf club swept up, scrapped the sky and finished high. A grown-up kid, chasing a dream I didn't quite understand, traveling around and playing golf tournaments I was never quite equipped to win.

"Here's a song from a bottle of whiskey, here's a song from a Holiday Inn/
Here's a song for anyone who's ever watched the daylight sweeping in/
Let it come from the other side of morning, let it go to the other side of night/
It's where your dreams are, they're only what you make 'em, you only make 'em if you try,
So close your eyes, let it all come back, one by one let the images files
Gone, but not forgotten, through the eyes of autumn,
I can still see your, gunfighter's smile"

Alex Bevan wrote those words about bravery and beauty, chasing things you don't understand, squaring up and squaring off, shoulders back, head held high. It haunted me for years -- and led me along on a course of reading the credits, knowing that the singers don't always write the songs, but sometimes the writers sing,

And he kept the pilot light lit for that notion -- me, a capricious kid with a good hustle sneaking into bars and college coffee houses in a pink buttondown shirt and slate colored Levi corduroys. A 13-, 14-year old girl, who looked about 10, figuring the same clothes would help raise the recognition factor -- forgetting the pictures of me in the newspaper, the ardor of my devotion and the fact that I was just so young going to communion with a sacrament of songs.

It set me up for a life of finding clarity in the hollow spaces within the chords, understanding in the words. It was a good trade for a girl a little too old for her peers, a little too wise for the bars and far too young to get lost the way grown-ups do.

Then there came Emmylou Harris. Rodney Crowell. It led to Guy Clark. Joe Ely, a flickering blue hot flame opening for Tom Petty at the Lakeland Civic Center, pressed against the stage at a General Admission Show -- having cut a day of my Freshman year of college to see Petty's homecoming concert and finding something else in the bargain.

Rosanne Cash was a line into Hiatt, and Crowell. The Geffen Records so smart, yet so obscure- - a guy who had an old soulman's voice, wrote almost by dragging a hook across the curtains, ripping away that which would obscure and letting light pour over it all, and all of it wasn't pretty.

Not that I really knew these people, just knew their music. Lived between the grooves on their records. Found things to laugh about, weep about, open up the veins of frustration, pump my fist and whoop with glory for.

So it was, in Boynton Beach, Winter Park, Coral Gables, Florida. But along the way, I picked up a pen, started writing -- about music. Showed an insight beyond my years and a knowledge far beyond casual. And The Miami Herald needed a country writer, and so it was I came to start knowing the rogues of the road, the poets and pirates who stole songs from what they encountered and gave back perhaps even greater truths than they even found.

"Don't make friends with the rock stars," the late great gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs cautions young William Miller in Cameron Crowe's memoir movie about coming of age as a baby rock critic "Almost Famous." Draw close to the flame is what he means, but it's your job to keep them honest, to remind them of what really matters, to keep them making music over money, not just money from music.

Still, it's hard. They are, so, shiny. And they break your heart, sometimes. The venality of vanity and ego obscuring whatever tender -- or hormonal in the lust sense -- place that song came from. Their honest experience crushed and eradicated under the tonnage of fame and fawning. Yet, you can't help but want the music to matter, to mean more, to connect to the people who need it.

Like that kid in a pink bedroom with a canopy bed, breathing the heavy night air and the rock & roll pouring out of WMMS in the lost hours, bathed in that odd glowing blue from the radio. She was saved by the songs and the FM dial, the records she'd spend hours pouring over and seeking.

There were others like her -- and the mission was to make their mission easier.

If you shared insight and wisdom, laughter and occasionally tears, not to mention good meals and whiskey, or tequila, red wine or whatever with the spinners of yarns, then so be it. It heightened the insight, the ability to conjure the essence of where the songs emerged. And so it came to be, in all kinds of countrys, with good conversations and spun notes that could just take your breath away.

Tower Records was vital then, a force. Their Pulse, working off the premise "we listen to a lot of records, we write about the ones we like," was a magazine that shared my taste, letting me write about so many of the artists I loved and lived for.

It was Pulse that put me in Clark's line of fire. An interview in a garret office in the top of a rambling office building that had once been a house on Music Row, a farflung discussion of discipline and influences, Townes Van Zandt and dignity, reasons to and the things that matter, for an album called Old Friends that creaked in the right places and turned truth to pure elixir with an oaken voice, a gravitas of old libraries and a warmth that drew you closer.

Lovett came before even his big time national record debut, a quirky quilt of jazz rhythms, minor keys and sketches of people and places the Texas Tom Waits might've followed. But swiped with wonder and a dearness that drew you in, and that shock of hair, that tilted smile that was as much a part of his "aw shucks" self-deprecation when you'd shake your head, marveling at how he put you "there" at "Closing Time," when you should "unplug those people" or on "This Ole Porch" where moments pass like "a plate of greasy enchiladas, with guacamole salad."

Lovett was most unconventional. Capable of such delicate intricacy, yet also able to engage arousal without seeming dirty. "You Can't Resist It" had such self-awareness of pheromones bursting in air, you could get dizzy from the frisson, while "God Will" recognized the humanity that fires jealousy and disgusted indictment in matters of love and straying nether regions.

Always unassuming, Lovett sometimes felt like the most erudite Hansel to my Gretel in the valley of the infamous, turning up where I'd be chasing stories, singing songs that made faraway places, people I'd never known real. The other kid seeking -- or rather not quite knowing he had -- a place at the table, but having one by virtue of his gifts as much as his desire to be there.

Ely had just kept slugging. A rootless tumble cactus, determined to be heard. Did his time in the hardscrabble LA rock fringe, opening for the Clash and trying to understand how Lubbock fits in with all of that, like so many ravaged post-Hollywood refugees, he finally figured home is what set him apart, and so the honky tonk ferocity of Lone Sar juke joints infused his insurrectionista refusal to fall in line with MTV,

Instead he seceded, putting out the fierce Lord of the Highway on the label that gave the world smooth newblueser Robert Cray. At the Hyatt House on Sunset -- far above what becomes the nightly river of the starving to be famous, where Led Zeppelin would decamp during much of their Stateside conquest -- we talked about running away with the circus, vast horizons and the need to burn for music.

A few hours later, in bolero tie and black close-cut denim jacket with a lean mean band, he would singe the Roxy with no frills, take-no-prisoners rock & roll. It was a commanding commando performance. A burst of guitar, a blaze of glory and into the night. Ely seemed to like it that way,

Hiatt remained more elusive. But he had a way of showing up in corners. Everyone knew he was brilliant, but like Ely, it was an unconventional record -- actually pulled together by John Chelew, one of the guys from McCabe's Guitar Shop -- that had a pilot light that turned home fires into mirrors of "me, too" and "Lipstick Sunsets" into sigh-inducing moments of romantic rapture everyone wants to see their own lives smeared into.

Whimsical, as well as mournful and insightful, Hiatt's soulstew would find its dawn with Bring The Family -- and just keep churning. Slow Turning bringing even more. And then there would be the hits for Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash -- and lots more, People who knew, who reveled in their lives would get the joke, ride the updraft and melt into the pools of feeling that offered temerity with the wheeeeee!

Thanksgivings spent with each and every one of them, Dinners eaten, field trips taken, dressing rooms passed through, All part of the journey to a place where I didn't ever know I was going, to a moment where it all turned around and the path had seemed to be blown clean. Only the memories and the moments, and the laughter, and the songs.

And the funny thing about songs is they often have three dimensions.

There is the song itself, a thing of perfect creation that tells a story all its own The keys, the pauses, the way the words seem to ride the progressions and the images they leave. Perhaps they show you things, paint pictures, reveal hidden places or carry you further inside your own heart with what they express about the writers own life, emotions, past or hopes.

The song itself is potent, but then there's the song and how you hear it: where you are and what you're doing, what those moments hold (or don't). It is the collaborative part of loving music -- the place where you bring your own reality and fuse it onto it. Then whenever you hear that song, it puts you in your own truth, your own reality -- deepening or tempering. An alchemy unanticipated, yet powerful beyond reason.

And then there is the song transformed: play it for someone else, share it if you dare. See how it hits your friends, or someone across a bar. Watch the shifts, wonder -- or ask -- what they're feeling, getting from it. Share your stories, your reactions, find things you'd never seen, or merely cement what you have: in the song, in the friendship, in the recognition of yourself in someone else.

The bonds forged over music are some of the strongest I've ever seen. Unlikely alliances, too, because of artists, voices, writers, songs, all bound up in truths most people would never articulate, yet knowing that "you got that, too" is the sturdiest bridge I know.

Living in the wind, roots are not a terre firme proposition. It is what you grasp as you fall, fly or hurl by -- and you cling to the things that are weightless. Like songs. In moments when it all falls apart, it's the music that often puts it all back together. Don't know why, just know that's how it seems to always happen.

Like sitting at my mother's grave, Clark's "Let Him Roll" rising like the rumble of far off summer thunder. Low, serious, strong, yet reassuring. And "The Randall Knife: following me around, like a ghost of consolation, an old friend who -- though unseen for almost a decade -- has the ability without doing a thing to remind you of your core strength, even as you're haunted by the jagged sense of what has happened.

And so it was. Time melted. It was then, and it was not. The past and future turning into one.

Alex Bevan, the singer who raised me right, to revere the singers of their own songs, had given up a weekend with his new bride to sing at my mother's funeral. For a woman best described as "a force of nature." A woman he barely knew, but a child he'd seen grow up.

Alex, with that dimpled precious smile, still a student of the game and a believer in how good it could get, someone who would love this night as much as anyone on the face of the earth. Of course, it made sense to take him to this show, to introduce him to the people who picked up when I'd wandered off to Florida, then LA.

It was a holy duty. And a delightful task. A reason to reach out, seek out these people who I knew from long before I midwifed dreams, made bold-faced music matter in ways most people missed. And if John Hiatt couldn't resist changing Ronnie Milsap to Kenny Chesney in his Nashville decompression rave "Memphis in the Meantime," no one laughed harder than the people in my row -- a swap to honor a decision I'm still not quite sure I made.

And yet, I did. Somehow, not even quite sure why. Just did. Just wandered off the path, into the jungle of great big show business. Football stadiums, magazine covers, red carpets, cloaks, daggers, awards and private jets. Not for me, mind you, I just spin the plates, keep the time, toe the line, and watch the stars rise.

Still for all the contretemps at the bus, some things never change. Old friends who have stories to tell, who laugh at your jokes, who smile just 'cause -- and who sing songs that still take you apart from the inside out. It's like Lego's with bent notes,

"Introduce us," Lovett says.
"They don't know me here," I respond.
"But we do,"

Indeed, we do. Know each other like the back of our hands, even with all the mysteries and missing years. Remembering things, polaroids no one should've noticed about days or nights or minutes that overlapped somewhere out there in the wind.

That's the kind of knowledge that brings you home when you can't find stars to steer by. Whatever is tangled or whirling, somehow eases up enough to poke through for the answers you can't quite find. For these are the people who love you even when you're missing, and who're happy to see you when you finally reappear.

Onstage, they pour their hearts out. But it's as much about the faces in the crowd who see their own realities, conflicts, conquests in those songs. The fans are there to genuflect at the altar of the songwriters, but they're also there to have communion with the ones who sanctified their reasons and recognized their doubts and pain.

It is a powerful exchange, but a little lonely for the ones up on the stage. Even as they're seen, they're never really known. Except occasionally, when a lost girl from the past who's asked far too many questions to ever be polite, who's trolled the docks and sidewalks of their lives seeking where it all comes from.

Earlier that evening, at dinner in a linen tableclothed restaurant, the waitress leaned over to Lovett and whispered in his ear. Ely had been telling us about his roadpoemjournal that was about to come out -- Bonfire of Roadmaps, shipped on his birthday from the University of Texas Press -- and talk of the dates and the length of time they'd been doing these shows, the kind of easy catch-up banter that marked the passing of time before a show,

A little girl at the next table, not much more than 8 years old, didn't wanna bother, but had seen him, and the waitress had said she'd see, And so Lyle Lovett got up, walked over, knelt down by the child and talked a few moments. She was, of course, coming to the show; and yes, she had a favorite song, and absolutely sure he'd play it.

"If I Had A Pony" is whimsical. It is a prelude to a freedom a child couldn't quite know they'd one day truly yearn for. It stood as a contrast to my own request -- for "LA County" about a jilted lover who drives all night to slaughter the girl on the altar of her wedding, an insistent bit of strummage that contrasted that bit of ghastly against the beauty of the vast scattered sparkling lights of LA from above.

Dark though it was, the beauty in the misery balmed me when I'd first moved to LA, and didn't have the sense of humor to fit in. Too Midwestern, too serious, too tender, it made no sense to me -- and so I could drive Laurel Canyon and Mulholland Drive, staring out at the diamond vastness and cry.

I knew just how he felt, that guy with the gun. And yet, I also knew there are some obsessions from which you can't run. Kinda like the prodigal woman in "Let Him Roll," and the song's object loving a girl about town named Alice, who used to be a whore in Dallas, it doesn't matter where you run, the truth will always find you.

Looking down the row at Alex Bevan and his new bride, my dear friend from before First Communion Bridgett Bowden, now McWilliams, and her husband Jarvis, who to me shall always be Jarvie, I saw the glow. They saw what I saw, they were moved by the hollow point bullets of Ely and Clark's fugitives pleas of "Letter To Laredo" and "Magdalene," the piety of Haitt's quavering "Have A Little Faith" or Lovett's courtly erosion of same with the jazzy slink of "What Do You Do."

Towards the very end, Lovett talked about Guy Clark's impact -- Old No. 1 being the album every young wanna be writer would listen to until it became part of the double helix geentic coding that defined their mind -- and being able to gather up stories of those who'd known Clark back when. From that place of reverence, Lovett introduced a song that his forebear had written, but never recorded -- a song he let the young Texan have called Step Inside This House, a song that held up the dreary every day items as treasures beyond price because of the memories they held.

It is a quiet song. A talking tour to someone you're trying to engage with, offering the meaning behind a painting someone gave you when they couldn't return the ten, a book of poems read cover to cover -- dearly loved, a gift from a girl you couldn't quite get there with. It's a soothing song that shows what truly matters with an intimacy that's almost blush-inducing... and it evokes everything about why they, their songs, this night matters.

They are conjurers, these men. They put you in all kinds of places, feelings, scenes -- and then they bring you home. They know how to go deep, to startle, to brush you off, to make you smile. They leave you feeling more: alive, aware, clear. It is a gift.

Looking at my oldest friends, looking at my old friends, I couldn't help but marvel.

Of late, the path has been overgrown and tangled. Not much makes sense, and yet, still I walk on. Sometimes there's no other choice. Keep walking, look around, maybe something will look familiar as you make your stations of the cross through life,

And so it was in an old theater in Cleveland, Ohio. Clark's wife Susanna wrote a song with Carlene Carter once called "Easy From Now On" that embraced the notion of shedding the trauma and drama, relinquishing one's need to save the world or at least someone hell bent on drowning and taking you under -- that let it all go by "getting off where the crossroads meet,"

Sometimes, though, it's at the crossroads where it all comes together. "Saturday night, I'm gonna make myself a name," the song, which has been sung in full gossamer glory by Emmylou Harris, continues, "take a month of Sundays to try and explain,"

There is freedom -- one way or another -- at the crossroads. On a Saturday night, in the chill of a loading dock, watching my friends mount a bus and settle in for the night, I smiled. Inside the venue, a few more friends, still trying to process what had truly happened, waited.

Right in the middle of them all, I turned. Everyone walked away with something different, hopefully something more. I would drive and drive all night, past the places where I became the girl who would become the woman I am now. A woman I wouldn't be without all of them, and hopefully, for anyone else who can ever find their reason in the music, it is a truth that brings them even when they don't know why.

The men would head to Louisville. Set up those 4 chairs, 4 mics, 12 bottles of water -- and conjure more people's lives with their tales. My friends would go back to their worlds, smiling and wondering how it happened, so much could be said in so very few songs. And me, I'll sit up again too late, marveling at what I have been blessed to see, the way my life seemed to go and the people I've met along the way,

It ain't that what I do will ever be noticed, but more what I notice as I go. Sometimes what you recognize is more than enough reason. These days, beyond the footlights, that's how it seems. And so it was in Townes Van Zant's sparely beautiful "Pancho & Lefty," the notion of the ending of two explosive lives wound down: "The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold/ So the story ends we're told.."

But stories like these, well, stories like these go on and on. That is the wonder of them -- like the road, they do go on forever. It's just a matter of showing up and looking on.

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