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Going In (Bonnaroo, Installment 2)

Going In

            It’s later than I’d’ve wanted. Black out curtains really do the job. But I shower, throw clothes in a bag, get my backpack zipped with socks and sunblock, my trusty MacBook and head out to the car buzzing with the promise of the day. I’ve got some fruit for a bus where I’m day camping and a long sleeved camo t-shirt that declares “Trouble Finds Me.”

            Hard to believe to two turns, one beyond a Starbucks, and time melts. Single lane black-top, speckled mostly gray from the weather, a junk car lot with cars so old it borders on antique. Then the fields turn to inky green pines, branch limp in the heat and a KOA campground from a 50s wanderlust Airstream pamphlet.

            The humidity just hangs here. Even it’s too heavy, too listless to think of moving. The dust is more a notion that the swirling dervish it can be.

            A little further still, there’s the check point. Two men in Bermuda shorts, highway orange vests, wave – and you wave back without thinking. The country makes you friendly like that, reflexive in a way that’s good.

            A little further again, they check your skews, scan your wrist band, make sure your parking pass isn’t a fake. They smile, too; tell you to “Enjoy your day.”

            The day hasn’t really started. The sun is up, the mercury’s closing in on 90. But it’s still hours before the real action begins. People walk, slowly. Scattered dots along a brown expanse thatched with dusty green canvas. They’re moving slow, too. There’s no rush.

            A late teen waves me into a line of cars parked at an angle in the field. Smiles. I shut off the engine, put my head back. A quarter of a mile away, trucks whizzzzz by on I-24 racing time to delivering another load. Here it’s still – with a promise of music.

            I get out. Grab my backpack, my Bitter Southerner tote of clothes and fruit, balance some cherries and blueberries in a plastic container and lock the door. I almost feel guilty hitting the button that makes the locks click, the ting. This is bucolia... but there’s a parking pass inside, like kidneys on the organ market.


            A few drops fall from a too blue sky. Surely not rain, not with me in my hardcore New Balance. But it just plinks droplets down. The sun never recedes, the clouds don’t gather. Just drop... drop... drop...

            “A rainbow? No way. Too cliché.” I walk on, never looking. Some things are too hackneyed for the momentum. This is the escape from real life, but I want it to stay real. To stay something you can believe on, something without unicorns or evil queens.


            Real life happens in the bus lot. No guard or proctor. Just sun and rows of Prevosts, lined up like soldiers at presentation. The only sign of life outside Rita Houston’s bus, the joy of full engagement, card tables set with food and mixers, Bloody Mary mix. Coolers filled with ice sit open. People laugh and talk about the night before.

            Rita has summer hair, shorn close, it’s a gilded halo of golden doodle down. The WFUV maven, considered by many the most powerful woman in alternative and Americana music, bursts into a bigger smile, offers a hug, laughs like the earth opening and throwing flowers to the ground. She is warm and bright and happy.

            “Do you know which bus is Lee Ann Womack’s?”

            She laughs, says no. We talk about the bands we want to see, she laments missing Dawes because she’ll be on the air. She is that way: loves the music from the inside out, but loves bringing the people who listen inside the moment wherever they may be. She gives them the feel, the flavor, talks about and with the people making the music that makes the day.

            Looking at my hands, she suggests I can put my fruit on ice, when the singer – or her family shows up – they can come retrieve it. “You’ve got things to do,” she teases me, and reaches for the container in my hand.

            Relieved I dig for the plums and apples in my bag, making small talk as I do. Thankfully my voice carries.

            “When Lee Ann Womack gets here,” sparkles a little voice. Turning, I see Lee Ann Womack in running shorts, a little tank top, looking quizzically at the party. Introductions made, new friendship seeds thrown, Bonnaroo has no truly begun.


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...”

            “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.

Click to read more ...


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,’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.


Sherman Halsey & The Crazy Carny Circus That Was Country Music's Fellini

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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