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Entries in Holly Gleason (25)

Sunday
Apr212013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 April 2013

 

Sunday
Sep232012

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

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

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

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

Patti didn’t need words. She had intonation.

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

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

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

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

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

And Patti was gifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes would flash.

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

I would try. He would refuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow Patti always knew. Always, always.

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

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

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

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

It was that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Patti?” he asked, quietly.

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

“She’s retiring,” he explained.

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

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

“Yes, she’s retiring,” he confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- 19 September 2012

 

 

Monday
Sep032012

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

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

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
May222012

Robin Gibb: Bee Gees, Night Fevers, Disco Apocalypse & Gone

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

“Jive Talking… telling me lies…”

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

“More than a woman… to…. meeeeeeeee…”

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

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

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

“Night fever… night fee-vurrrrrr….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to reconsider everything. Everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To not know is frustrating, but somehow sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday
May182012

On The Radio: Donna Summer's Last Dance... & Gone

In that flood of ebony hair, there was always that one gardenia. Floating on top of the satiny waves of almost-porn star mane, it spoke to things past, the moment of ripeness and the perfume that intoxicates. It was almost the same way with her music…

Only I was too young to know. I was just marking time on the way to another day at the Laurel School for Girls.

My school was too small for buses. We had school cars. Or rather station wagons, in these frosted off shades of green; the logo in white on the driver’s door. Announcing that we were the girls who went to the school where smart, athletic girls existed beyond the world of normal kids going to regular schools.

They’d pack us in like sardines: upper schoolers who didn’t drive, middle schoolers stuck in between and the “littles,” as underformers were known, who didn’t have a clue, but were so excited to be riding with the big kids.

Some years, I was stuck on “the route.” Some years, my parents got me to school.

Some years, the radio crackled with interesting music, things that just captured my ear and seized my nerve-endings. Some years, it was stuff I didn’t understand. Like “Love To Love You, Baby.” I didn’t understand it… at all.

There I was in a dark green and blue plaid jumper, knee socks, Hanolds white blouse, hyper-listening to… WHAT? What was THAT? Why was she moaning? It sounded like pain. It sounded like slow agony. Worse than a stomach ache. And that broken-voiced confession, all ragged and raw, where she wrung out those attenuated “luhhhved ta luhv yuuuuuu, bayyyyybeeeeee…”

That was love? I didn’t feel like that about Stitches, the Cocker Spaniel.

And still I listened, transfixed, trying to understand, to make sense of this twisted writhing bit of synthetic churning. For surely something was going on. I didn’t quite know who to ask, but I did notice the gap between the tittering amongst themselves upper school girls who knew things, and the obvious discomfort of the middle schooler seated next to “Wolfie,” the hirsute 20-something janitor charged with transporting this carload of all-girl school girls.

The origins of my life with “the big dictionary,” the one on the platform that required me to get on a step stool or small ladder to view it, was always random. An Evel Knievel story in TIME about his Snake River jump and the word “fellatio”… a dinner table discussion about a porno motel a few suburbs over and the word :kinky,” which was unsuitably defined… and now this travesty of AM radio and the word “orgasmic.”

Even after pulling the ladder over and thumbing through the pages, I’m not sure the definition of the adjective or proper noun clarified much. Furrowing my brow, I debated asking the librarian; but looking at Mrs Jennings with her severe pixie haircut and heathered Shetland wool sweater, I decided it was probably a trip to Miss Frost’s office in the making. I resigned myself to living with the unknowable.

Donna Summer would return, of course. Over and over. Always with that beating of wings, locusts rising fleshy beat that made her disco’s most ravishing siren. If I didn’t quite understand the pheromonal throb of “I Feel Love” and “Last Dance,” I got that she was really, really pretty, wore slinky dresses and could flat out sing. Her voice was strong silk, complete desire – for what I didn’t know – and liquid fire.

I hated the music; I loved her.

I also grew up a little bit, felt that knot in my stomach and the way my mouth got dry, but my white cotton panties damp when certain boys would pull me close in the later, humid hours in some all-boys school cafeteria. Barely moving, barely turning, swaying to “Dream On” or “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t a uniform response, but when it hit…

That realization hit about the same time as Bad Girls, the colossus concept record that was four sides (!) and followed the Cinderella notion of Once Upon A Time. It was epic. It was pulsating, but with a force beyond the mirror ball. Yes, it was disco, but it rocked. Rocked hard. The guitars meant business in a way dance records never seemed to – and the synthesizers were eviscerating, blades and shafts of sound that cut right into you.

And… it was about… HOOKERS!

Ladies of the night Street walkers. Squalid objects of paid for pleasure.

I was riveted.

There in Glencoe, Illinois, where Steve Dahl was jihading his “Disco Sucks” nation to steamroll the records at Comiskey Park, I confessed in yet another station wagon how brilliant I thought Bad Girls was. As Summer and a chorus of back-up singer/trollops intoned,“BeepBeep! Honk! Toottoot!,” one of many cousins told me I was stupid; his friend added, “That sucks…”

I assured them they were wrong. I’m not sure what Blair Tinkle does now, but Tripp is a realtor in Naples, Florida. He owns a Golden Retriever, who exudes the same pliant worship Summer did on the Hot Summer Nights album cover.

And I… armed for bear with “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All The Lights,” “Love Will Always Find You” and the ever-aching “On The Radio” had both the on-ramp to Miami’s gay clubs in the last days before AIDS made its somewhat confusing entrance – and a somewhat fascinating demi-field guide to the sex workers I’d find in the cocktail lounges of old school grand hotels like the Fountainbleu and the Diplomat. Those shabby/grand palaces of much rococo furniture, faux gilded touches and a bottomless supply of random and randy conventioneers wandering the tundra, looking for someone to make the night a little warmer.

The prostitutes were human to me because of Bad Girls. They were a fascinating flock of pros, who knew how to turn a trick, work a hustle and rarely lose their sense of humor doing it. When Summer later – comeback #3, if you kept score – issued the uberEverywoman anthem “She Works Hard for the Money,” I thought of every tired late-20s/30-something in too high heels and a push-up bra wondering if that swollen ankled fez wearer might “need some company?”

Still when the working girls killed time, they made for fascinating conversation. All the stories, faces, places they’d seen. World-weary, wearier than me – and I’d seen plenty. They gave me a pragmaticism that bottomlined life with dignity and temerity, not just a suck the last dollar from the wallet sangfroid.

Even more exciting were the gay discos and night clubs! The Copa, X, warehouses with flashing lights and mirrored walls, everyone fabulously turned out, churning bodies on the dance floor, undulating and shaking and stepping in ways that only made temperatures and heartbeats rise. I knew Donna Summer; I could fake the rest til I figured it out.

So many amazing near faceless artists who no one seemed to know. The System. Jenni Burton. This chicano or black girl named Madonna. Prince. Sylvester, Three Degrees, Candi Staton and the androgynous queen Grace Jones. It was another world.

  I was transfixed by the glittering, pulsating (sur)reality. Like Dorothy over the rainbow, or Alice down the rabbit hole, it made no sense and completely enthralled a Midwestern kid who’d grown up in corduroys, a ponytail and buttondown shirts.

Walk into a ladies room and there’s be two full grown men sprawled on the console, talking about mascara and aural/oral pleasure. Step back to confirm the triangle with the legs, walk in to their utter amusement:

“Girl,” they chided/consoled, “you ain’t got nothing that we want.”

If only the same could be said for me. I wanted their glamour, their romping free-spiritedness, even their slightly bitchy panache. They were out and doing as they pleased, finding pleasure where they most wanted it and celebrating with a euphoria that was no doubt fueled by substances I didn’t realize were being passed.

In my quasi-awareness and utter-consumption, I began a double life: writing about country stars for The Miami Herald, crawling the gay clubs for The Weekly News though I was really neither. Showing up at the Hollywood Sportatorium, a horrible sounding building in the middle of nowhere in polka dot stilettos, pedal pushers and a strand of rhinestone dangling from my ears to see progressive hard country star John Anderson confused my father. I knew better than to try to explain; though the drummer seemed to be drawn by the sparkle.

In Donna Summer’s world, everyone belonged. Not quite an island of broken toys, but certainly a place that celebrated who – and what – people actually are. Not just acceptance, but exultance. Let your freak flag fly, let your light shine.

After the serious disco of Casablanca,  there was the more meaty time on Mercury, where the music was more muscular, more rock-leaning. Beyond the throttling “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger),” there was “Protection,” written by Bruce Springsteen – where her voice more than held up to the load. She was a fearless vocalist, columns of notes impaling you as they flew almost assaultively by.

And then came the rockpop of her time on Geffen years and post-battle Polygram clean up, slightly experimental, often pushing the edges of what could get on the radio. Beyond “Works Hard For The Money,” there was the reggae “Unconditional Love,” the classic soul-pop of “There Goes My Baby” and the post-50s synthed up Dion gone dance “The Wanderer,”the noir jazz of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” even the elegant AC of Brenda Russell’s “Dinner with Gershwin.”

She started weaving in some of her strong Christian faith. Things like “I Believe In Jesus” would randomly grace her records. She became more convicted in her interviews, witnessing to her beliefs and even renouncing some of the hedonism she’d been a most glorious soundtrack for.

Donna Summer, the willowy vocal flamethrower discovered in Germany by producer  extraordinaire Giorgio Moroder, came to realize how much life was beyond the dance floor, the concert hall, the outdoor amphitheatre. She of the tumbling ebony locks, punctuated with that one perfect gardenia, an homage to Billie Holiday and every bodice-ripping heroine of a certain era, saw that there was something else – and she decided to walk the line between secular and salvation, still finding the sweet spot in a pop song, but tempering with a whole other kind fo soul music.

Chaka Khan might’ve been earthier, Aretha a generation before, but Donna Summer of the Courvoisier tone and pole vaulting range had her finger on the pulse of America. She could dead-eye radio, and she did. Over and over again.

And then she stepped back for a bit. Moved to Nashville with husband guitarist/songwriter Bruce Sudano. Came out when it made sense, sang hard, set the night on fire and returned to her home. She was difficult – if that meant wanting things to be right. She was a Bible-thumper – if that meant sharing her truth.

Still glam, still gorgeous, still fascinating to watch n a crowded restaurant, she was regal. But wuth a kid’s smile and laugh that was equal parts homegirl, righteous sister and world traveler.

Asking around today, nobody in town seemed to know she was sick. She didn’t want to live like she was dying, she wanted to die like she was wildly, vitally alive.

The last time I saw her was just over a year ago. At a funeral for a young man who took a turn too fast, and that was that. So many people turned out, the church overflowed, the downstairs was opened up with a video feed and still people kept tumbling onto the grounds.

Summer knew the family, loved the brio of the patriarch who’d lost his only child and the mama who was every bit of what welcoming should be. After John Prine sang and Keb Mo did, too… after a few of the now gone teenager’s friends read the posts on his Facebook page from people finding out he’d passed on, Donna Summer got up and sang.

She sang with her whole being, her whole heart, her whole soul. It was powerful, almost paralyzing in the force of faith that she brought to this wrotten occasion. Just her voice, and that tiny church 48 miles outside of Nashville. Just the tone alone stunned you to where the song didn’t even matter.

This was a song of faith… faith in the worst possible moments… faith that would bring you through… even if you didn’t understand a single world she sang, you could feel the battering power of what she believed knocking back the pain, the ache, the confusion.

When Donna Summer sang that hymn, that was all there was.

“Love To Love You Baby” was 16 minutes and 51 seconds of utter grown-up glory. When I finally figured it out, I smirked too. Laughed at how innocent I was, and how much I loved what I came to understand was the grounding of that performance. What was murky became glorious; what vexed me made me marvel at how all-out it was.

But in a country church on a sad, sad day, she gave up an even greater glory. Head tilted back, tears in her eyes, she sang for a 17-year old adopted boy, the parents who loved him, the friends who were one with him and everyone who lost a different kind of innocence that day.

Donna Summer was born to sing, to exhort us to deeper place of faith and surrender. In the letting go – of rage or torque, pain or want – we could be born again. We could find that higher meaning, the passionate arrival.

Somewhere in the stars tonight, she’s shining. Looking down on us, gardenia behind her ear, sparkling like she did and singing some sweet song that’ll help us all make sense of another constellation’s worth of grace and music gone.

17 May 2012