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When I Get My Rewards: Godspeed, Dick Clark + Levon Helm


I was driving when I got the text. Three words: “Dick Clark's passed.”

Trouble with the road is you gotta keep moving, from scouting a location to a drive-by lunch and straight down Carnegie to Prospect to an industrial parking lot, up a ramp, into a black-out curtained cavern where a young band was setting levels and getting ready to greet their fans.

Hot Chelle Rae are kids. Barely a quarter century the oldest ones. Power pop trio with a scaffold-soaring singer. Wasn't even sure they'd understand - even if they all have family in the business, cause, well, it'd been a long time since “Bandstand.”

Professional always, I drove it down. Tried not to think about ithe tear inside Ask the questions I was sent to ask. Watch the show. Draw the conclusion. Let it ride, Let it roll. And I did. I always do.

Jamie Follese, the youngest - who four years on the road has just turned 20, is the one I told. Wide eyes with hair falling into them, he managed a “Wow.” Then he showed just how long Dick Clark's fingers were even after the stroke that slowed him down.

“I can't believe we did his last Rockin' New Year's Eve…” he marveled.
Yeah, exactly.

I'd been in the studio when I got the news Levon Helm had turned for the worst. With a folk singer, my first idol, a sketcher of humanity, mortality and the wonder that keeps us ascending from the sludge and mud.

We had a song that wasn't coming together. “A Way To Make It There” considers the tides that pull us under and gentle breezes that push us on. Taut, driving, yet somehow encouraging, too, it was a song about people lost - and found.

I told Alex Bevan about the word that Levon wasn't long for this world, that they were asking for prayers and love and good thoughts. Then I sat down on my folding chair near the mic set-up and smiled a tired, fading smile. It had been a long three days. But draining though it was, our journey wasn't that.
“I never met him,” Alex said. “But oh, his music…”
His music, indeed.
Their music, really.

I said a rosary while my friend got that elusive performance. I was glad he could find the grace in such sad news. Levon would've liked to think he was woven into someone else's song that way. 
And then I was gone. Prayers and pensive, but moving again.

Until the text. The quick emails to everyone I knew who knew Dick Clark well, including one of his sons, who's been one of my best sources of clarity for years. Losses that are public are even more painful in private; I've been watching survivors cope for years.

It's like that Danny Flowers song “Before Believing” - and the lines “what if pieces of the sky were falling/ In your neighbor's yard, but not on you?”

There wasn't time to stop and think, to write as I do. Drive, yes. Sleep, some; the sleep of the deathly exhausted. Then rise and drive and think and talk to God about the meaning of it all.

Dick Clark, for many of us kids in the Midwest, was the gateway to everything we cared about. Bands we loved, artists we needed to know. They all played his show - Madonna, Prince, the BeachBoys when they were babies, Michael Jackson with (and without) the Jackson 5, James Brown, Van Morrison, Men Without Hats, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, rem, Dion, the GoGos, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Barry Manilow, War. Black, white and Latino, the guy who got his start in Philadelphia as a disc jockey by hosting a local tv station's dance party not only made no distinctions, he welcomed all music. Allmusic. Heck, he even helped get hillbilly singers on tv - back when it was a cousin'r'hog-humpin' oeuvre by helping the Academy of Country Music get their West Coast-recognizing awards show on network television.

Clark realized what the kids knew - and you could argue he rode it to a behemoth television empire, or you could say “Someone got it, and gave it back.”

All I know is he had an acute sense of what was going on around him. Things you'd never think he'd notice - he was Dick Clark, after all - registered in ways you'd be shocked to realize.

I'd been shuttling or hanging around country stars doing “The American Music Awards” and “Academy of Country Music Awards” for several years… Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, the Kentucky Headhunters, Rodney Crowell… 

I'd always smile and say “Hello” as my internal dialogue shrieked “Dick Clark!” and I'd think about all those Saturday mornings, watching the teens and 20somethings dance to all the musicians I dreamed of. An onramp to a magical world, a seeming comrade of the ones I loved…

One day, he called me by my name. Just as if he did it every day. I didn't fall over; but what did you say? Right. I went with nothing. A stupid smile, a nod. 

Years later, standing at the production table with Brooks & Dunn in tow, I started explaining the interview flow to the full grown men with the hardcore post modern honky tonk attack. Dick Clark studied me. I could feel him. I was worried I looked bossy.

“Look at her,” he said off-handedly. “They watch her. They listen. They follow her every word. It's amazing.”
A year or two later, I almost closed my business. Somehow Dick Clark heard. Someone who worked for him called me on my cell. “He says he's never seen anyone handle famous people the way you do,” was the open.
I was speechless. “Dick… Clark… said that?”

The person and I talked for a while: what he saw, what he respected. They then told me they agreed with the tv scion. Joe's Garage stayed open.

Levon Helm was the same way, only completely different. Open to everything, aware of what was going on. Very keyed into the energy and the humanity around him.

But Dick Clark was a silk necktie, Levon Helm hopsack britches. Clark was Vegas slickness, studio polish; Helm was funky, ragged, raw and the greasiest groove you could possibly find. One was “the world's oldest teenager,” the other was a wicked drummer with a bottomless pocket who sounded older than hollers even when they were still the Nighhawks, long before Music From Big Pink hit the streets.

They were both enthused about music, the people who made it. One celebrated by finding ways to put it on television - and long before most people today remember, doing “Cavalcade of Stars” package tours and taking the music to the fans. The other could be found doing his celebrated Rambles in his barn in Woodstock, NY - bringing together an eclectic group of roots musicians to jam and remember the notion of coming together in song, the same way he and The Band had inspired a somewhat flagging Bob Dylan and helped ignite his Rolling Thunder Review.

Levon Helm, whose last album was called Poor Dirt Farmer, was about the gritty and the real, the dignity between the cracks and the honor of living with integrity. He was a sweet soul, an elegant gentleman, a smile that lit up buildings and a credit to his Arkansas roots - a place where they grow a little crooked and wild, with a sense of gallantry that's anything but pompous.

No, he made you yearn for a hero in denim, who knew how to find the howl and the soul, to scratch at the dirt and the moon, to craft desirability from the hard scrabble and romance from a woman's small details.

Levon… Helm…. That voice, wide open, almost braying. Those hands, cracking and rolling over those drum heads and cymbals with a euphoria that swept you up, kept time from breaking and making it all so right now.

The Band was one of those acts: essential and the essence of what it meant to be rock & roll while keeping it organic. It's no wonder Keith Richards loved him, no doubt that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band summoned Helm for the reconvening of the tribes, when they bridged the old school Nashville to the modern blurrers on the Grammy-winning Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.

I watched Helm be as gracious and charming as any human being's ever been at Scruggs Sound just below Nashville. The Dirt Band and he working on a way gospel “When I Get My Reward,” scraping soil and sky and making us feel like salvation was right there for the taking.

He had that way about him. It ran through his daughter Amy's band Ollabelle, too. And when Levon got the cancer that almost killed him several years ago, it was the music that saved him, that led him to other more heartening places. 
His joy was always palpable, his growl and time impeccable witnesses to whatever he needed to convey. His Rambles at the Ryman were lovefests: Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, whomever was in town, grappling to be a part of Levon's earthly angel band. Indeed, even the random dog or two would trot onstage or lay down by the man with the wickedly flawless timing.

You couldn't not feel good in his presence, and you wouldn't feel anything less than euphoric hearing the music he conjured. It was like he was blessed, and so were we to know… who he was, what he did and the way he carried himself.
How they carried themselves, Dick Clark, Levon Helm both, was a lot of it. They brought an infectious enthusiasm for what they beheld. They made people feel welcome. In a world of big egos, crazy notions, utter indulgence, they never lost the thread - never lost the sense that it was the music that was made and the fans who loved it who mattered.

I woke up in another town, still exhausted from my run up 71 north to Cleveland for the Rock Hall Induction dinner - and a night that went on and on and on. It was a celebration of how music sets you free, rebels against the inertia and revels in the intensity of being alive.

In spite of the melodrama generated by Axl Rose, Guns N Roses deported themselves as a true relic of the electric kineticism and insurrection of rough rock & roll, the Beastie Boys brought the same pushback via loud, progressive rap and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wadded up rock's slam and grafted it to the most industrial strength funk one could imagine. This night, they all throbbed and threw down. Breath-taking stuff.

Even the Small Faces/Faces aging innocence was charming. Though Rod Stewart couldn't attend due to illness, Ron Wood wore a tiny shiny mod-feeling suit, Ian McLagen in a Technicolor whirl of a shirt and Kenney Jones in bang-about street clothes - and they reminded the local fat cats, the industry standards what the 6000 people in the balcony already knew: whether it's the winsome yearning of “Ooooh La La” with its sweet chorus of “I wish I knew then what I know now…” and the raw sex of the bandy “Stay With Me,” rock is straight stuff jammed directly into one's veins.

There were other acts, too. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill's induction of Freddy King was jubilant, drawing you in, then dropping the groove for an incredible “Goin' Down.” Carole King's induction of Don Kirshner made the business more than a necessary evil - and showed the way loving the music from the business side can advocate creativity in broader realms, while Bette Midler mainlined her own fandom of progressive singer/soulwriter Laura Nyro for an induction that stilled the balcony out of recognition and reverence for the way music touches us.

On the ride up to my hometown, I'd spent an hour on the phone with a true believer. His brother's pushing 50, but he still rocks, still has a band, is still biting the dream. The name alone tells you everything: the Mojo Gurus. Hardcore, snarling rock & roll, blazing guitars and a cloud of dust. Is it sardonic or stupid? Swaggering or snarling? 

At the end of the day, they're mainlining the New York Dolls flash, the Stones at their roguest, a little Skynyrd, a dash of Ian Hunter, maybe a touch of the Faces, a bit of the same things the Black Crowes whirl and churn. Will it happen for this little band that almost kinda coulda a few times? Hearing the yowl of singer Kevin Steele, you get the sense it doesn't completely matter; that's not what he's singing for.

No, it's deliverance. It's the sacred space where you can let the whip come down, the truth rise, the thrill of being in the whip's crack - or as Springsteen exhorts, “It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.”

And it's true. It does. Music is the great soother, inciter, inspirer. To listen is to understand all the things that elude us in the conventional realm. It sows clarity, compassion, resolve, courage, occasionally lust and often romance. And that love is the being in love with life, not even a member of the opposite sex.

Moving too fast, though, you don't get to put things into perspective. You only get to keep dancing as fast as you can, hoping you don't fly off the flat and end up with your head or life cracked wide open.

Got home just now, right on the cusp of rush hour. My phone rang. It was a friend who knew I was driving, figured they'd let me get home (knowing I rarely radio or internet surf when I'm truly covering the miles)… 

“You know he's gone,” they said gently as they could.

I didn't have to ask. I knew. I felt the energy drain from my body, felt all the momentum that had been pinning my exhaustion to a wall far from where I was standing fall away.

“Oh,” I said. What do you say? Especially when the man who wrestled New Year's Eve from Guy Lombardo's Big Band had exited the day before. 

Even when you know, you're never ready. So there I was, speechless in the kitchen, knee deep in book bags and backpacks. I didn't know what to do, so I managed a “thanks,” heard what I thought was, “I didn't want you to read it on the inter…” and hung up.

Then the tears started. Tears for Dick Clark. Tears for Levon Helm. Tears for who I was so long ago, when all the innocence those men embodied were twisted up with the thrill of music that made my pulse race.

It wasn't about knowing them or not, about the end of their creativity. It was more about two more icons off the chain of people who believed in what the music could do. It was about losing a piece of me that I'd invested in them… invested long, long ago.

Because once you know, you can't not know; but you can climb into a song and remember. It's palpable. It's everything you'd be if you were still innocent.

But to even be able to remember from the inside out, well, that's what music's for. It's the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when they get it… my first idol staying with his filigreed songs until the quietest truths emerge… some band in Tampa playing it flagrant and loud…

It's why Dick Clark was able to keep America's kids engaged, create “The American Music Awards” and “Rockin' New Years Ever,” to remain a touchstone to punks and funks and rockers, poppers, rappers and everyone else. 

It's why Levon Helm's solid, crisp beats still bust up every wall and resistance people might have, the voice equal parts Spanish moss, cracked red dirt and sweat that renders eloquent shabby details and heroic normal engagements.

It's why music matters - and these men stand out. We are more for what they gave us. They are immortal for the mark they've left on so many hearts. But especially, they are inspiring for how they embraced the music without limits - and to live and love like that is everything. All you have to do is really listen.

21 April 2012




Patsi Bale Cox: Real Broads Live on Their Own Terms, Stand Their Ground + Go Out More Alive Than Most People Live

Weeks before Patsi Cox left her mortal coil, she got busted. Riding shotgun down from Kentucky with a guy running moonshine; the feds in an unmarked pulled the pair over.  BANG! Put the bracelets on. Took her in. Couldn’t make the charges stick, but what an outlaw move!

How Patsi…

Right before she checked out, she goes flying on the wrong side of the law, laughing and telling stories, feeling more alive than most of us would ever dare. Sixty-some odd years old, and there she goes: 70 miles an hour through the dark, cargo of illegal hootch in the trunk.

Can’t think of a better move. Patsi, after all, filled out the definition of a broad with a ribald sense of humor, a fearless sense of right and wrong, humanity on the half shell and the willingness to speak out about the things that mattered to her.

Busted. Then she left the building. Smoking right up til the end… from emphysema… dying on the same terms she lived: exactly as she wanted. And if she knew it was going to get her in the end, hell, Patsi figured better that than being safe or boring.

Patsi’d always lived like that.

A bona fide hippie feminist, she came out of Denver when it was really wild – founder of a legit woman-concsious magazine in a place where that sorta thing seemed to matter. And when it became a raging success, and the big boys came a-callin’ to put her on their boards or big retainers – hoping to annex some validation from the homegrown Gloria Steinem – Patsy wasn’t buying in. She saw the game, and she moved on.

Moved on – and ended up in Nashville. Before it was sanitized of characters, people with opinions and notions and a sense of what great was. She fell in with a creative crowd, fringing with Johnny Cash cohort/songwriter/producer Cowboy Jack Clement, casting her fate with iconoclastic music biz vet Steve Popovich and producer  Allen Reynolds

With that broad laugh deepened by the cigarettes, she could regale you with stories, tell you about the over/under on just about any breaking news story, point out hypocrisy without blinking. She had an eye for injustice – and she’d let you know

She had an eye for good work. She’d let you know about that, too.

When Patty Loveless came over to Epic Records from powerhouse MCA, she had a blood vessel threaten to burst on her vocal chord and still turned in a stunning album. I went after the press with a vengeance.

And it all came in. Only What I Feel was just that good. Patty Loveless, the hard country girl from a God’s honest holler in Eastern Kentucky, a true hillbilly soul singer, was getting her’s.

Having known Patty since she was a singles artist, I remembered her buying vintage clothes and practically living out of the trunk of her little Toyota; I was merely a college kid, writing for all kinds of amazing places, but still mostly a kid. I took her shot personally. I hounded and reaffirmed, cajoled and reminded; she won.

When an ex-husband ran to the tabs with some very unflattering stuff, we fought it back. Addressed it once, waited for the pain to die down. What was sure career destruction was short-circuited.

Late one business day, the phone rang. It was Patsi, whose firm had represented Patty before she’d changed labels – before she'd some in-house, because honestly, I wanted to know everything was being doggedly pursued.

“I”ve been watching,” she said husky voice, all fire and corn whiskey.

My stomach tightened. As a young critic, plenty of people had thrown down the “why HER?” card, daggers at my feet and sniping at my back.

Patsi took things personally, too. Don’t show fear, I thought. Breathe. Just breathe. You can take whatever she’s gonna tell you.

“And…” I hoped I didn’t chirp.

“You’re doing a ^&%ing great job,” then she laughed. “Seriously. She’s finally getting what she deserves… and it’s been great to watch.”

We talked for another half hour. About Patty, where she came from, the secret marriage to her producer – for fear of it overshadowing the music, the songs she chose that gutted you like a fish.

The sun had fallen from the early summer sky. Surely, Patsi had a life to get back to. After all, who calls to say “Good job”? Especially when they don’t have skin in the game.

“You keep doing what you’re doing,” the journalist/publicist/force of nature said. “Before too long, she’s gonna be winning Female Vocalist of the Year.”

Just like Patsi to remember: the little girl, who’d grown up sitting on the kitchen table on Saturday night while her mother washed the floors as they both listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a radio propped in an open window, always dreamed of “the big award.”

When as a kid, her brother brought her down to Nashville to see about those songs she was writing, she was taken under the wing of Porter Wagoner and his emerging equal Dolly Parton. She went to the Ryman as their guest the night they won their first CMA Duo of the Year Award – and she was dazzled by the way Dolly turned real life into songs, songs that mirrored Loveless’ emerging emotions.

“Yeah, Pats,” I concurred. “From your lips to God’s ears…”

“You’ll see,” she soothed. Then she was gone.

That was the woman with the headful of shaggy faded ebony curls, huarache sandals and some kind of boxy clothing on. She always knew when to weigh in. She made her point. Then she was gone.

She was the wingman for Cathy Gurley, who at one point ran the Country Music Association’s press department. Then went on her own. Then was lured to Capitol by the legendary music man Jimmy Bowen, just as the ascent of Garth Brooks was beginning.

Cox had been around Mercury when Steve Popovich had signed a politically (radio)active Kris Kristofferson, a theoretically past-his-shelf-life Johnny Cash, a West Virginia folkie with a voice like expensive silk named Kathy Mattea and yes, polka king Frank Yankovic – and she got them all.

Yankovic, proof that a bull-headed Pollock from Cleveland can never ever get above their raising, made Patsi happy. She got it, and never worried that he wasn’t “country,” because to Pops Poland was a country.

Gurley, like Patsi Cox, loved songwriters. She took me to the Bluebird on my first trip of Nashville in 1983… to see an “in the round,” with Tom Schuyler, who wrote the songwriters anthem “16th Avenue,” Paul Overstreet, responsible for Randy Travis’ “Deeper Than The Holler” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” and Fred Knobloch, who’d paired with sadly departed folk icon Steve Goodman for the stunning tortured torch of “A Lover Is Forever.”

Cathy Gurley sat me down, waited for it to happen. Boy, did it. The power of songs from the source is a blast from a high pressure hose, only it comes at the listener soft and warm and earnest. It was a watershed…

It was also exactly what Patsi Cox traded in. Exactly that mainlining life that made her feel most alive.

Not that a woman like Patsi Cox would ever be fulfilled apologizing and ratcheting up the fame mill. Eventually she drifted back to writing. Authoring Tanya Tucker’s autobiography in a deal brokered for big dollars by a New York agent who didn’t care about whatever humanity the wild child singer might still have.

It was a devil’s deal. What Tucker wouldn’t commit to telling, what the publisher believed they'd bought.
One of the good ones, Patsi understood how a woman who had a couple kids – regardless of how much cocaine she’d ingested, how many cowboys she’d poked, how tempestuous her bust up with Glen Campbell was or how superfreaky her dalliance with Rick James might have been – would not wanna wallow in the squalor.

She stood on my stoop one night, sucking on a cigarette, ruing what people value.

“They only want the dirtiest stuff, and I’m not gonna give it to them,” she announced proudly. “T. doesn’t wanna. The publishers are telling me to push her – and there’s just a point where it doesn’t matter. I’m at that point.”

Ahhh, Patsi, who would never prey on a famous person’s vulnerability. No, she was the kind who would bow up and stand strong for her collaborators.

Pat Benatar fell in love with her when Patsi co-authored her memoir.

Toni Braxton took and took her time and money to where she almost bankrupted the feisty woman who hated what had happened to Braxton, who had faced down a bankruptcy over predatory show biz deals.

Thankfully, an angel appeared from almost nowhere. We were on the phone one night, talking about the politics of Music Row – the peril of knowing the difference, the things that were really at stake.

She got quiet. “If it wasn’t for…(name of angel, she probably wouldn’t want revealed)… I’d’ve been in the streets And they told me to just pay them back when I could, and I almost have.”

She was quiet one more moment, out of gratitude and grace. Then she laughed that rolling tumbleweed laugh, and did a Patsi.

“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled.

Oh, Patsi. Patsi, Patsi, Patsi.

Damn you! The truth so succinct, so true – and, well, so thrilling.

Over the last few years, things for me have been a bit off-kilter. Things you thought you could count on, people you were sure you could believe in… Well, they’re not always that.

Patsi understood. We’d talk about it. She never pressed for details, just asked “How ya doing?”

The conversation veering from faith to raw stupidity.

“How do you believe when there’s no reason to? What a sucker,” I lamented one afternoon.

“Nah, you’re never wrong to believe, Holly,” she consoled. “You know, if you don’t believe, I don’t think you’d be one damn bit good. It’s who you are, it’s what you do… and if somebody betrayed that, well, that tells you everything about them, doesn’t it? And now you know, and you don’t ever have to look back.”

Patsi did, though. She looked back without turning to a pillar salt like Lot’s wife. Looked back to make order out of random patterns no one saw; looked back and considered what it all meant.

Her book The Garth Factor examined the impact of the arena-sized country superstar from Oklahoma, not just on the country music business, but the world. She looked at how it happened, what it wrought.

She did it with clarity, and she did it with faith.

“Keep the faith,” she’d remind me when I’d be laid low. “Keep the faith. It’s what you do… Well, that and write like nobody I know.”

We would IM about politics, about hinky stuff happening down on Music Row. She’d pull no punches, call a spade a spade. We were both relieved someone else saw what we did…

There was nothing like seeing her pop up as an IM. Like electricity, you knew the exchange would be fast, furious, provocative and send you away enlivened and emboldened.

When Steve Popovich died suddenly, we were all startled. He was the man who built Meatloaf out of raw will, sheer determination and the steel-hard get it done work ethic that is the Rust Belt smelt of Pennyslvania, Ohio, Detroit -- and he knew how to get things done, how to ferret out the passionistas from the poseurs.

He was mythic from my childhood, almost too daunting by the whispers I’d heard floating around my hometown to speak to. I found myself driving north to the funeral, sitting with a man he’d signed to Epic New York who he couldn’t break and Popovich ultimately would have to cut from the label.

Me and the singer had an odd talk about death after the service. “The good ones are dropping,” he said.

It shook me as bad as the service. I found myself writing one of these essays. Staying up all night, then flying to Nashville to drive to Savannah to interview Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, watch the show, pass out and drive back to Nashville to fly back to Cleveland – and finish that essay.

When I walked into the same chic restaurant I’d had dinner in all by myself two nights prior, they remembered me. The manager led me outside, watched me open my keyboard and asked if I was okay.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I gotta get this right.”

Patsi Cox was one of the first people to respond. “You got it” came the three word email. Phew!

Later online, she told me all kinds of stories about the close knit family that were interwoven with her own family. How Pop believed in her, and we both knew that was a pretty good endorsement.

She got guys like that. They got her, too. She was the kinda broad they liked. Tough, savvy, testicle-busting, but the first one to stand up to you, but especially for you.

Then just like Steve Popovich, Patsy was gone. In and out of the hospital, obviously. Oxygen pumped in, but the laughter and her intolerance for b.s. never pulled out.

Even so, few things were so vital as seeing “what are you doing?” or “did you see…” pop up on your screen. She was a live wire, a brilliant source of questioning and insight.She made you think; she made you care.

Funny thing, life doesn’t distinguish. Death hits us all.

And right now, as I’m wedged between two promotion veterans, winging my way to Vegas, there’s a memorial service going on at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One more moment I miss, and yet, Patsy would’ve probably said, “Get out there! LIVE.”

Still, it's the things you miss. Being there. Tall tales that are anything but. Patsi Cox’s just about last ride was shotgun with a shine-runner. It’s the stuff legends and lies are made of, but you know Patsi Cox lived her life her way... never lying down or worrying about what might happen.

“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled. She would know.We should all hope to be so lucky.




Earl Scruggs Claw Hammers, Hippie Kids + A Grace Beyond the Moment

I’ll never look at the Waffle House the same way. The one out by the
Assault & Battery Lane exit, 65 South out of Nashville, called Harding Place
before the name change.
It’s actually on Sidco Drive, a parallel runner that’s lower industrial strip
malls. There’s a Cracker Barrel for the more traditional Christian-types.
Then there’s our Waffle House, like an Island of Broken Toys for college
kids trying, sobering up from a benders, gay kids after whippets and
dancing, old Nashville remembering and the occasional country star.
Everybody sits tucked away in formica veneer booths or at the counter on
swivel stools, waiting on their Scattered, Smothered & Covered. Even him.
See, that’s the thing about Earl Scruggs, bluegrass royalty, generational
bridge, iconic artist and musical trailblazer, he was always at home with theSave & Close
slightly off-kilter.
You’d see him there. A lot. Especially after his lovely wife/manager/deal
squeezing wife Louise passed on. Or at first, you wouldn’t see him. He’d
just be. Maybe you’d go to pay your check, or else you’d notice how neat
and pressed his denim pants seemed.
Wouldn’t think much about the calm man sitting over his plate of eggs. Until you looked a little closer. Then WHAM! One of those only in Nashville moments: “Crap! That’s Early Scruggs – “ would exclaim the voice in your head.
Mostly people didn’t bother him much. Might stop and say a few words.
You didn’t bother stars at he Waffle House; you sure weren’t gonna pile up
on a legend trying to drink his coffee in the not so early morning hours.
I remember the first time. Sucked in by the demin pants. “Ahhh, what a nice
looking older gentleman,” I thought. I smiled, always a softie for serious
Raising my eyes to gaze into the countenance of this lovely man, I felt my
jaw go slack. “Holy crap! It’s Earl Scruggs…” I hoped was uttered by my
internal voice. He didn’t really look, so the silence was my cover.
He looked up from his plate, met my eyes, smiled.
I smiled back. Dunce, yes, but not paralyzed with shock. Most likely, I was
so surprised, I scanned as someone who had no clue, no notion that this
was the man who invented the intricate 3 finger picking style that almost
eradicated claw-hammer playing.
It was a genuine moment. Quiet, unseen, but engaged. He didn’t need to
show me his Grammys, he offered his heart. Sincerity and warmth is about
as good as it gets.
See, Earl Scruggs might’ve been a master musician and innovator of the
same caliber as Miles Davis or Coltrane, but he was more a man who sought
to bring people together. As a player, his first break came in 1945 with Bill
Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry, but it wasn’t long
until he and Lester Flatt teamed up and spent the 50s and 60s barn storming
the country – and creating a true frame for the Appalachian musical form
that was all ache and flying fingers.
 Flatt & Scruggs were icons. Standard-bearers. Gospel-carriers.
 The audience was white, lower middle class, worked with their hands, backs
hurting. But they found the Flatt & Scruggs sound vitalizing.
And then there were the hippies. When the 60s folk movement hit and the
hippie generation erupted, Earl Scruggs – in part at the behest of his wife
Louise – packed up his sons and took the Earl Scruggs Review to colleges
across the nation.
With the Viet Nam War in full throttle, college kids protesting and drugs
making their way into the mainstream youth culture, musicianship and a
yearning for authentic made Scruggs the hottest ticket with the hippest kids.
This was breaking ground and healing generational damage just by being
who he was.
And who he was transcended what he was. Always a player of high
execution and credibility, Scruggs also believed in music’s transcendence.
When country was as right as you could get and Jane Fonda the only woman
more radical than Joan Baez, Scruggs couldn’t wait to make music with her
-- recognizing the crystal clarity in her voice.
He also played with hippie sitar player Ravi Shankar, the folk-pop band the
Byrds and Bob Dylan. The Eastern music and inscrutable lyrics engaging
him in new and thrilling ways.
Which was really all Scruggs wanted: to be engaged, pushed, challenged, to
see how far music could go. He was there when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
recorded Will The Circle Be Unbroken and returned for Will The Circle
Be Unbroken, Vol 2, produced by his acoustic guitar virtuoso son Randy
He was there at the Opry. With and without Flatt.
He was all about making music. When Steve Martin got serious about
bluegrass, Scruggs was there. When Elton John wanted to play with a banjo
man, he was there. Indeed, he was as comfortable with Billy Bob Thornton
as he was Vince Gill or Marty Stuart – and folks like John Fogerty and Leon
Russell clamored to play with the man who’s in the Country Music Hall of
Fame, has received the National Medal of the Arts, recorded Red, Hot &
Country for the Red Hot Organization, which supports AIDS charities , and
received a Grammy for his 1968 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” as well
as writing and recording “The Ballad of Jed Clampitt” for “The Beverly
It is vast this legacy. Marks left in places most would never think of, yet
when you pull back and consider… of course.
Like the Waffle House, where I don’t get around to near as much now that
my metabolism has slowed to a crawl. Its just one more all night dive off I65
just south of town, except that Earl Scruggs used to sit at its counter, quietly
eating his breakfast.
Always one of my favorite things to tell out of town guests!
“THIS is Earl Scruggs Waffle House!” I would proudly declare. Their eyes
would open wide. Sometimes they’d get lucky and he’d walk in, or I’d
signal with my own eyes where to look.
Now, of course, you won’t have to. He’s not there. Although my money –
once he gets sorted out in heaven – is that he’ll be back. You’ll find him
sitting there at the second or third stool, not quite present, but there… Just a
presence that will never quite leave.
Of course, when you make the musical mark Earl Scruggs did, you won’t
ever be gone. People will listen to his records and marvel; pick up their
instrument and practice the complicated three fingers rolls, the wildly
accelerated picking.
His mark shall last forever. So will his soul. A man from the same Piedmont
region in North Carolina – which gave us contemporary hipsters Carolina
Chocolate Drops – he was dedicated to his craft, pushing boundaries and
sorting out what the future held.
There’s no more sorting. Earl Scruggs is in heaven. With the angels. With
the Angel Band – and all is, though somewhat sad and slightly empty, alright
with the world, with the ones who pay attention, even as we’re sad through
losing Scruggs.

Whitney Houston After the Glitter Fades, There's Still the Incandescence of Talent 

The post office at the University if Miami was tucked away; you'd hardly notice it. And  it wasn't much on the inside either. A wall of post office boxes, standard marble linoleum floor and ever-present humidity.

The cardboard box looked like every other, too. “Arista,” the return address said. Yet the doe-eyed girl with the curly hair and the expensive photo session spoke to me. She didn't look much older, and she seemed so alive in the moment.

“I hope this doesn't suck,” I remember thinking, knowing Clive Davis' predilection for drama queens and divas, Barry Manilows and frumpy AC. I wanted to like this girl, in the days when MTV was exotic and dance music ruled the clubs.

Back in my dorm room, she killed me. That voice: the power, the range, the essence of being alive. She had diva range, but she didn't bludgeon you with it. Instead she leapt over tall buildings, turned cartwheels and seemingly laughed while she was doing it!

“How Will I Know?” seemed to be the anthem for Every(young)woman trying to find herself, wondering if he was the one. She understood, though, how to bob on the anxiety like a cork - and her ebullience gave us all something to cling to as we figured out who we were.

While she was pretty, staggeringly pretty, a former 17 covergirl, as well as the niece of Dionne Watwick and daughter of gospel stalwart Cissy Houston, she didn't seem otherworldly. Whitney Houston could have been one of us, came off as someone who would talk to us. She even in the moments of big vocalizing seemed to feel our pain, our desire, our rapture, our hope.

“Saving All My Love For You” and “The Greatest Love of All” - both bravura turns - had just enough innocence to let us know these were emotions mortals could feel, too. Yes, she looked like a goddess and sang with the kind of powerhouse acumen that would cause Mariah Carey to bludgeon and over-sing through her first few records, but Houston's heart was pure.

It wouldn't last, of course. 

The industry would start putting walls between us, currying favor and encouraging diva-like behavior. The stakes and expectations would rise. The toadying would increase. No doubt the disorientation and then vertigo would follow.

She could come off as the same effervescent girl, shiny and happy in the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”” video, but the unraveling was already being set into motion. Not yet. No, there would be another album that would provide the perky uptempo feel good moments - “So Emotional” and “Love Will Save The Day” - a la the Supremes, and the big ballads - “Didn't We Almost Have It All” - that would recall Diana Ross' most serious solo work.

It was still the music and the image of exquisite perfection. No troubles, no drama. Just a mahogany goddess who poured down light like the sun. Right up until the burn started. If the second album found Houston in a white tank top, hair flying free and easy, “I'm Your Baby Tonight” saw a young woman in the Limited's universal Firenze sweater - just like the rest of us - only seated side-saddle on a motorcycle. 

She wasn't trashy, wasn't a whore, but was certainly opening up to the thrills life has to offer. As the MTV Onset Generation's Beyonce, she was the object of fantasy - and it wasn't long until Bobby Brown, New Edition's resident bad boy and emerging solo force, came calling.

There were whispers. There were fierce fights that made the tabloids. There was, obviously, drug use. But there was also more music… the stuff of true soul queen proportions… and the movie that made her an international superstar a la Miss Ross: “The Bodyguard.” Co-starring heavyweight serious man-hunk of the day Kevin Costner as the man assigned to protect the star from a stalker, it was a smash.

Beyond the film, where Houston's goddess-on-pedestal perception was tempered with a humanity, range of emotions and skosh of street smart homegirleality, there was the gigantic performance of Dolly Parton's “I Will Always Love You” that served as the film's theme. What had been written as an enduring good-bye with gratitude to Parton's once mentor Porter Wagoner was turned into a tour de force of love beyond limits that sat at #1 on every radio chart across the world for months. Ubiquitous isn't nearly enough: car radios played it relentlessly, talent shows were over-run with it.

Whitney Houston, the most unilateral girl singer possibly ever, had graduated to the ranks of inescapable, but was still capable of turning in truly monstrously great vocal performances. She slayed “The National Anthem” on a regular basis. She performed with her aunt and mother on a gospel medley and left jaws slack.

Yet, there was something ravaging the grown woman's psyche. Never mind the theoretical alliance with r&b's hottest male star, nor their small daughter Bobby Christina. Like George Jones and Tammy Wynette before them - right down to a self- tribute-named-daughter named Tamela Georgette - she and Brown seemed hell-bent on conflict, destruction, consumption and being lashed together with a love that would ultimately eviscerate them.

There was the infamous “crack is whack” interview, where Houston seemingly blitzed beyond reason came across not as Ghetto Fabulous, the way newcomer soul queens like Mary J Blige were, but ghetto tragic: out of her mind, possibly lost forever and absolutely throwing herself into a gutter she had no business being in.

Was Brown's rapacious drug use the issue? Had the wild thing sucked Houston under? Or had she so soured on being America's sweetheart that she found the good girl role repellent? 

Hard to say. Plus, addiction's addiction. Once you're in its jaws, it's hard to ever escape. And in show business, there's always someone dying to give you a bump, a hit, a puff to gain access to a world they'd have no other entrée to. Plus once you start bottom-feeding, you change the game of both the quality of people you attract and their willingness to not protect you.

The tabloids lit up. Drama.  Drugs. Physical altercations. Skeletal pictures. Flubbed performances. Court appearances. Cancelled shows. Riots. It was a fiesta of bad news, and it kept getting worse.

Yes, she made attempts to get clean. Divorced Brown, who'd been arrested on various charges of battery and domestic violence; but not before taking that “hood stance” of so many women that “that's my man…” regardless of what he was doing, even to her.

Whitney Houston languished, became a punchline - not even a cautionary tale about drug use. So extreme, it was comedic - that awkward laughing when it's too uncomfortable to face. So lost, she didn't seem to notice what was gone - or consider how to come back.

That wasn't what was important. What was? Hard to say. There would be glimpses. Maddening seconds where we could remember. Introduced by Prince Andrew of Monaco at “The World Music Awards,” where her weightlessly compelling reading of “I Will Always Love You” - defying gravity, clinging with such strength to the notion of a love that would never let go -- eclipsed any scurrilous notion or harsh photograph.

For the Dawn of MTV Generation - and countless waves of young people who came after - Whitney Houston was definitive. Mariah could pummel a song; Alicia Keys, another Clive Davis protégé, could scale melodies with startling ease; Christina Aguilera could toss columns of air around like feathers, but none  was Whitney.

Whitney Houston: effortless, gracious, glorious. She was glamorous even in a pair of beat-up jeans, hair a mess and giant sunglasses hiding heaven knew. She could sing circles around all of them - and had a knack for finding songs that spoke to feelings even larger than her voice - a gargantuan instrument - seemed to carry.

It was all so sad. The train wreck her life became. The music and film careers she eschewed. The chaos the public seemingly would never know. The squalor that swallowed her as drugs devoured her life.

Clive Davis remained unflagging in his support. Rumbles would tumble down the grapevine of a comeback. Houston would get clean, would come out, would dazzle. But had the moment passed? Could she maintain the strain?
It was hard to say. Harder still to know…

Until now. 

Until an hour ago, when a few random postings hit the Facebook feed. Then the requisite Google News Search provided entirely too much independent sourcing. Whitney Houston was dead… no cause or whereabouts given… confirmed by her publicist to the ever vigilant and utterly credible Nekesa Moody of the Associated Press… on the night of Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy soiree.

Ramdon. Sudden. Wham!

Too many images flooding my mind. Too many songs jump-cutting in my head. Too many memories laced into the soundtrack of growing up at the University of Miami, with a ten-year old Mustang with no air conditioning - windows down, radio painting the immediate vicinity with those shiy early hits.

Equally warm and heavy afternoons in Silver Lake, waiting on my star to rise… knowing that my name in Rolling Stone, Musician and The Los Angeles Times would take me places I couldn't imagine. Los Angeles so glamorous, girls like Whitney Houston with their perfect bodies and satin skin dressed to kill intimidating the a Midwestern girl in me… and yet on those afternoons of stultifying heat and doubt about the future, I could put on my pink bunny slippers and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and jump around the apartment until I wore myself out.

My beau at the time would return from the office to find me, t-shirt knotted up, hair matted with sweat and the album cover propped against our wall of vinyl and laugh. “Face down in Whitney Houston again?” he'd ask. “Get any writing done?”

Often the answer was “not really,” to which he'd reply “Feel any better?”

Inevitably, the answer was “Yes.” For if she could, why wouldn't I? 

Only a matter of believing, pushing off the bottom and staying happy.

Staying happy is the trick. It seemed to elude her. Screw the talent, the charmed life, the bold faced-ery of it all. Screw the maggots who prey on the famous; the drugs, high impact great love in Brown. Damn the brokers of glisten who forget that it's the music that saves.

Somewhere Cissy Houston has a broken heart, Dionne Warwick is thinking about every sad song she ever sang. Don't even think about Bobby Christina, who lost the disaster that carried her for nine months and was the fierce mother who fought for every choice she ever made.

It was a waste, however it happened - and it don't matter how. Whitney Houston's gone. All that promise, that light, that talent: silenced.

Whatever it was, well, it happened. There's no turning back, not much reason to wonder what if. The tragedy is the entitlement of fame, the predators they draw like moths to light and the reasons too many people don't step in.

We as a culture have made vanity first a reason, now a blood sport. To be the hottest, youngest, famest, flamest… Lindsey Lohan has been choking on the fumes of this since before she could drive; Demi Moore and Heather Locklear are both locked up, unable to cope with inevitable reality of aging and hard-partying lives of privilege that are indulged for those who exist beyond the mortal coil.

Seemingly, they are immortal. So they don't just believe, but are sold by everyone who would sell them out. Lying to themselves and each other about the loyalty of those around them, convincing themselves it can't happen to them.
Until right now. 

Whitney Houston's gone. She will, no doubt, always love us - perfection collapsed in Kevin Costner's arms in the climax of “The Bodyguard;” frozen in infamy as one more snuffed out too soon and with God knows how much left to create.

Tonight, Clive Davis will have his party - where she was slated to sing. Among those gathering will be some of pop, rock and soul's true royality: Quincy Jones, See Lo Green, Tony Bennett, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jackson Brown, Jennifer Hudson, Elvix Costello and Diane Krall. What they will make this loss mean remains to be seen…

What it means to me is this: Create. Love. Be. Embrace every moment. Respect what you're given. Honor the people around you. Be grateful for others' work, their efforts, their gifts.

Try generosity and grace, eschew judgement and especially live with honor.

We all know right from wrong; good from bad, the straight path from the slippery slope - and we've all watched people we love teeter. Rather than say “It's not my place,” let's all reach out, steady or even pull them back. Yes, they might get mad, but in the end, better to cause rancor and save them than tacitly enable the things that can kill.

Whitney Houston was 48. That is the middle of middle age. Tony Bennett is still vital, still msking music and taking our breath away… So should it have been for her, for us.

How will we know, indeed?

-- Holly Gleason, 2/11/12


Amy Winehouse: No, NO, no... Fame Kills Harder Than Drugs or Sex or Booze

            It wasn’t like we couldn’t see it coming, wasn’t like anyone was shocked. Yet, the news Amy Winehouse had indeed been found dead in her London apartment tore through my Saturday morning with the harsh ripping reserved for muslin I’m going to use for mustard plasters. Forceful, sick, weakening.

            Just as quickly, the romancing of the necrophoolishness began All the talk of the 27 Club, those tortured seemingly-beyond-comprehension-talents who also died in their 27th year Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain. There’s nothing romantic about addiction – or the kind of pain so profound no amount of drugs or sex or booze can tamp it down.

            It’s an odd bargain we watchers of the bold-faced make. Reveling in the lip gloss and hair color, high heels and hobbies; but also voraciously consuming these creatures who capture our attention, For what reason do we watch? What gift? Does Snookie have any real value? The Kardashians? Paris Hilton?

            Beyond Amy Winehouse’s ages old voice, a delicious mix of sweat and ennui boiled in a flammable combination of kerosene, cocktails and bodily fluids, her biggest hit was the sardonic “Rehab,” a song mocking the thing that might’ve saved her – had she ever committed to it.

            Instead Winehouse’s notoriety was driven by a bobsled ride of trainwrecks, misadventure after trainwreck misadventure piling up like used syringes. Wandering around, clearly out of her mind, bee hive busted, eye liner smeared down her face, often in a state of near complete undress. Sometimes it was rows with tavern keepers; occasionally, her acting out coming via on-again, off-again husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a man quite possibly along for the ride on the reflected glory fame flume.

            A highlight of that combustive union pictures from the morning after a particularly brutal night, her bruised eyes, feet bleeding through ballerina flats and him, face clearly scratched madly, walking hand-in-hand down the street like post-soul Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Placidity post-pound down.

            Insanity makes for good copy. The media can’t get enough of a disaster, and 5 Grammy Awards be damned, the high jinks meant more than the music she created. For having been raised on a strong vein of classic jazz and saloon songs – her first album was named Frank in obvious homage, and contained the gold-digger hating vitrol “Fuck Me Pumps” – and easing into a ‘60s soul redux that had a modern flair, equal parts wide-eyed innocence and street-wise irony, Winehouse told it like it was for a generation watching all social norms being melted down for greed and a brand-name-checking nihilism designed to validate from the outside rather than the inside.

            But it’s that raw ache, like a rope burn to the soul, that made her something more than the Brit-pop-soul thrushes – from Duffy to Adele – who came in her wake. This wasn’t about the pain of a relationship gone really bad, this was some other kind of soul-battering that had a profound darkness, no doubt heightened by addiction, at least one toxic relationship and the enabling that all pop stars attract.

            Because it’s hard to tell pop stars “no.” The second you do, five willing compliants pop up, validating whatever bad thing they crave as something deserves and often deriding the person voicing objection as “a buzzkill.”

            Being the one standing by, watching, helpless and knowing every outreach only alienates the addict, sex hound, boozer further. The debate begins: stay close and hope you can catch a falling star… or allow them the consequences of their actions, knowing the ultimate end could be the ultimate consequence.

            There’s a saying a recovering alcoholic I know – 20+ years sober – embraces, “Don’t deny me the dignity of my struggle.” Or in the case of record company people who need the next record, the agent and manager who commission, everyone else who gets their fees, the momentum of her fame and the money.

            Who tells someone who can still create a furor with next to nothing – her Tony Bennett track will no doubt be a stand out –they don’t have a choice? The tour’s cancelled. You’re off the road until you’re sorted out. REALLY sorted out, not a Band-Aid on the problem and a blind-eye to the fact that your treatment is a white knuckle kinda sobriety.

            Not to mention how annoying the incessant calls, problems, shady characters and questionable reasons become. Some of the handlers resent or mock the person behind their back; others join in – as part of the party or from the fringes rocking their own deal because the artist doesn’t know… and no one cares. They’re beyond that in the momentum of the meltdown.

            Those meltdowns, by the way, are awesome. Not only does it give the media a quick jolt of adrenal buzz, a way to hold people’s attention, it allows readers, viewers, regular people to feel superior – because they’d never be that messed up.

            Look at Britney shave her head…  Attack the mean paparazzi with an umbrella…

            Watch Courtney throw make-up at Madonna live on tv… see her wander into a Wendy’s almost naked… Fight with her daughter Frances Bean on Twitter…

            See Kate Moss honk up a white powder with her then boyfriend Pete Doherty, of Baby Shambles, a man known more for his drug abuse not music…

            Watch the indulged famous brats implode. Easy prey. Lost souls. Dumb luck. Hard work. Take this and be cool… Be an outlaw… Rock harder than a mere mortal… And hey, Icarus, if those wax wings melt cause you’re too close to the sun, don’t blame us when you crash to the ground and die.

            Shoulda known. All those chances.

            We consumed your pain, your freak-out and turned it into water cooler conversation.

            We drove our mini-vans or Priuses, wore our neat and clean clothes – or our pseudo-bohemian hipster looks, took out the trash and hit happy hour. We loved the music, but we loved the freak show more. And so the roulette wheel spins. Most make it, some don’t – but we, the Romans are entertained watching the stars face lions that look just like indulgences.

            What we lose is what that music might’ve been. There are plenty of great straight up soul singers, but Amy Winehouse hit veins – sometimes with razors, sometimes diamonds, but always with deadly clarity.

            Maybe not like Billie Holiday, another famous junkie the press is now rushing to invoke, but perhaps more like Judy Garland, a tragic figure propped up for commerce and lost in a pain we’ll never know.

            What kind of songs would Kurt Cobain have written? What would he have said about the state of his generation? The nation? The world?

            What kind of breakthrough playing would Hendrix have achieved? Where might he have taken the electric guitar? What might rock songs have become in his cosmos of groovy love and psychedelia?

            Would Morrison have recovered enough to find a societal matrix that would’ve broken through to the other side? Merged poetry in its purest form with the release and conquest that rock & roll is at its root?

            And Joplin? What soul-melting revelations could’ve come – a la Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time – had she found a little help? Could she have melted pain and defenses with her raging vulnerability? Maybe.

            It’s really the “We’ll Never Know Club.” We can’t say they could’ve been saved. But you can wonder what price does putting your foot down exact? Lose the friend, the client… save the life, possibly.

            Over the years, I’ve delivered a bunch of bad news. Starting with my own parents. People don’t like it. They get mad. They hate you. There’s never any proof what you stood down “woulda got’em.”

            You don’t know. You don’t. And the other person has to want to be more than a piss’n’puke stain on the floor. Tricky business, saving lives that are more valuable in any shape half-functioning. Yet, the ultimate loss is even more.

             We couldn’t have done anything to save Amy Winehouse. But participating in the tabloid speculation, the “ooooh”ing and “tsk”ing about “how awful it all is” creates a market for these people to be hounded. The worse it gets, the harder to cope; the harder to cope, the more likely they are to numb.

            It’s easy to say, “it comes with the privileges.” And it does. But it’s also about helping these people walk the line of fame in a way their sanity isn’t one of the first things to go,  replaced by the copious consumption based on rock star expectations.

            It takes special skills to navigate fame, the rush of everyone wanting a piece of you. It takes handlers who believe in humanity as much as money. It takes a long-eyed view of a flame burning awfully fast.

            When you hear someone’s sliding, express outrage and concern. Don’t sniger and laugh. It is funny: those humiliating, crazy things that happen when people can’t get right, but it’s something more, too.

            Like I said: we didn’t cause, couldn’t stop it. But we’re all accessories when feeding the beast that eats their lunch. What we lose, we’ll never know. Creativity is its own commodity, but a little bit of our humanity goes when we’re callous, mocking, eye-rolling, indifferent.

            Think about that, and think about being the change we need to see in a celebrity-obsessed world where too many are famous for nothing but the empty husk of not much more than gaudy consumptive lives

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