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Entries in Steve Popovich (2)

Friday
Mar302012

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.

 

 

Friday
Jun172011

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson: Passion, Fight, Creativity + Rock & Roll Dreams

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson

Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through

    I'm in a shitty hotel room, chattering and chilled to the bone. I've driven all day, and it doesn't even matter. Sometimes you do what you have to do - even when it doesn't make sense to the people that know you.

     It's not irrational. I know exactly why I'm here -- shivering, waiting for the heat to actually kick in. And it's not just the funeral for an iconoclast with a huge heart and bigger balls, even though that's why I'm here.

     It is about the world in which we live, the vineyard in which I've toiled going on thirty years. It's the way I spent my life and the beliefs I've held. Especially at a time when doing the right thing, fighting for greatness, believing the music matters is at best quaint, but most likely is viewed - no matter what “they” say - as chump stuff.

     Steve Popovich, who passed away Jun 8th in Murfreesboro, TN, would disagree. He'd tell you to fight for what's right, to stand up for what's different, believe in the music, not the business or the politics or the egos… to know great, no matter the guise, and make sure it gets heard.

     Steve Popovich was that kind of guy. That's how he lived… right til he died.

     That kinda guy… big, bottomless heart. True believer. Fearless advocate for what he believed. Tireless in pursuit of great music - be it progressive polka bands like Brave Combo or Michael Jackson, Boston or David Allen Coe. When Meatloaf sold 200,000 copies of his first album and Epic Records informed him they'd done all they could do, Popovich went market-by-market and created a sensation, making Bat Out of Hell the biggest selling record that year.

      That's the thing about true hearts and big dreams… they don't let go. They'll haunt you. Take hold and keep holding. Rarer than rubies, when you encounter one, you never forget. They will make you do things you can't believe you're doing…

     Like driving 10 hours dead exhausted at the end of a record launch and an Oscar winner on a red carpet… to sit in a church where I know barely anyone… to honor a legacy so many would never understand. Because it's just not done that way. Not any more. Not to the point where people even understand why it matters.

     And yet, if you know, experienced, saw or even glimpsed Steve Popovich in action, there was no way you could turn away. How could you? To see passion, raw and unfiltered, 250 proof and looking for matches… that was the kind of thing that left people speechless.

     Only Steve Popovich would never settle for that. He wouldn't let people stand by mute. He'd cajole and engage and encourage. He wanted you to know… for sure… but he wanted to know. All about you. And every single you in the room, the street, the world. What did you think? need? feel? what makes you thrill? ache? rage?

     He was genius at it.

     Which is what made him the kind of promo man who can change everything for a rocker, a songwriter, a band

     Which is what made him the kind of A&R man who could convince a barely post-teenage Michael Jackson to sign with Epic Records.

     Which made him the kind of guy who picked up Johnny Cash and polka king Frankie Yankovic during his Nashville tenure and let them feel like kings, not scraps in a record business that seemed to have thrown them away.

     That was the thing about the coal miner's son from Western Pennsylvania, he not only knew the margins, he understood them. Just like he understood the working class, the blue collar, the faceless mass that one by one added up to platinum, double platinum - or in the case of a husky operatic tenor with designs on rock & roll, 14 million in the end.

     That was the thing about Steve Popovich - as Meatloaf, that 14 million piece success, so beautifully noted as he eschewed the podium to stand by the white draped casket at St John of the Cross: “Steve passed on us twice, but he never dismissed us.”

     Steve Popovich wouldn't. Indeed, couldn't. If he hid behind the notion he was just “some Hunkie,” he understood the power of passion. Knew that if you had talent fueled by that ardor, there was nothing you couldn't do… you just had to believe and refuse to give up.

     No matter how crazy or futile it seemed. As industry legend Ron Alexenburg noted, Steve Popovich carried Meatloaf's flame for almost a year - one market at a time - until Bat Out of Hell kicked in. In his tenacity, he wouldn't give in. In his faith, a superstar was forged.

     Someone spoke of his denial, how it kept him from embracing how mighty his opponents were… and how that allowed him to persevere. They talked of how every day the business broke his heart, but every morning, he woke up happy, willing to believe in the power of dreams and music.

     He took on - and beat in court - Sony Music, a behemoth multi-national corporation. Never one to be intimidated, he knew his truth - and he wouldn't be brow-beaten or condescended to by a group of Harvard-educated attorneys.

     He was Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Only Steve Popovich helped so many people get their hands on the brass ring… built bridges when it wasn't happening… created chances where anyone else would've laughed. Boston, Southside Johnny, the Michael Stanley Band.

     He believed in people who believed in their music, who had the fire and weren't afraid to blow on the flame until it burst into some kind of blaze. Even the Michael Stanley Band - whose seminal Stagepass is reputed to have sold gold on Northern Ohio copies alone - turned into a powerhouse of mythic Midwestern proportion: selling out the Richfield Coliseum for two nights faster than Led Zeppelin, staging multiple SRO night stands at the outdoor amphitheatre Blossom Music Center and retiring with a ten night capacity stand at the more dignified Front Row.

     Two out of three of those places are gone. Blossom, summer home to the Cleveland Symphony, has a few other reasons to survive. But all those altars to what music can mean to kids coming of age in the real world before reality tv, leaked home porn and trainwreck drug use could make anyone a sensation… That was the thing that Steve Popovich instinctively knew and absolutely built a life on.

     And so the tributes came: Clive Davis. Miami Steve Van Zandt, Ian Hunter. Meatloaf in person, and 80s teen sensation Robbie Benson.  Record men, local ethnic people he'd embraced, national level radio bigwigs, co-workers from back when, Northern Ohio icons like Daffy Dan and Beachland Ballroom owner Cindy Barber, dignitaries from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and family. Especially family.

     If Steve Popovich loved music, he stood for family. How many of the speakers called him “Pops,” and that was how the larger - literally and figuratively - than life figure liked it. He believed in his kids, his grandkids, other people hanging onto their roots and their blood.

     He was fierce about that, fierce the way only a Midwesterner who believed in certain kinds of sanctity can be. That notion of how strong family is gives them a foundation to dig in and fight, to believe in loyalty, commitment and making something more where nothing exists. But it's never nothing - there is always the invisible connection that is family, friendship, creativity, respect.

     Funny thing about this death. Came just when I'm drifting. Not sure if any of it matters, if people care about songs that reach down inside, show you what you didn't know you were feeling, reminded you how great something small can be. Things that last, because they're things that can be cemented by small groups of people.

     It's been a long time since I've truly worked a record. But a promise made three years ago has found me guardian angel-ing The Dreaming Fields by Songwriter Hall of Famer Matraca Berg. It's a grown up work about how life buckles and stumbles, the things we do to survive, coping with disappointment and soldiering on. It harkens back to Neil Young's most organic records, Joni Mitchell's more brooding, personal works.

     The journalists are overwhelmed. Too much grunt work, not enough inspiration. Little records that could - especially ones that don't come on their own wave of critical mass - are impossible dreams. Every placement just about is hand-over-hand, phone-call-after-phone call.

     But the record is --- in a world where hyperbole has become the new white noise and platitudes land like so many leaves in the fall, weightless and anonymous - amazing. Once people hear it, they're transfixed; their souls open and they remember how music can change everything.

     The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Rolling Stone The Boston Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Huffington Post, No Depression.com and NPR's All Things Considered are the tip of the iceberg. There is more to come… and there is SIRIUS/Xm, too.

     Popovich would approve. The calling and witnessing for love, not money, friendship, not career move. But it's labor intensive, and who works like that anymore? Why would you? And with every placement so hard won, how long can you keep it up? How many hits until some kind of word of mouth critical mass kicks in?

     At what point does the dreamer become a fool?

     At what point does forgoing one's life in the name of someone else's dream seem lunacy not heroism?

     At what point do you realize the loyalty you show may not be the loyalty returned?

     Michael Stanley, a Popovich windmill, would write a song called “Different Reasons” that contains a lyric that speaks to it all:

     “You can always tell a dreamer,

     “You just can't tell them,

          “tell them anything…”

     And so it is. A girl an ocean away, fixing to play the legendary Glastonbury Festival. Her oldest friend, sitting in a church pew, wondering how everything that mattered got lost in the flood. A roomful of folks who know the difference feeling cuckholded by the status quo.

     But once you know, how can you not know?

     How can you honor Steve Popovich and accept the diminishing of what can be?

 You don't. Indeed, you can't.

     It is three days later. I am in a progressive bistro near Case Western Reserve University, near Hessler Street and all the museums, the symphony hall; I'd come here after the funeral, to think and drink and escape - and I have returned to finish this.

     In 48 hours, much has happened.

     A 3:30 rise for a flight to Nashville to drive 500 miles to Savannah, Georgia to get out of the car and interview Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about their band. To make sense of my notes, to watch the show - and musicians engaging in webs of soul, of funk, of jazz, even as they grounded in a gritty blues-steeped rock.

     They were exultant. The horns and the singers, the twin drummers, the bass player who plays like the best chocolate cake, creamy and dark and sweet and moist, a keyboardist who evokes and steams the songs and Trucks' liquid solos that are mercury and ether, melodic without being complex to the point of constriction.

     And Tedeschi sings like breathing, soul exhalations of doubt and need and desire.

     It is a holy thing, and they have forged a family out there. Not just with the kids and the parents on the road, but the whole 11 man band and crew. It is what the Allmans might've been long ago without the drugs and the drama, but regal and engaged.

     Popovich would've got it, liked it. Family hanging together, making it work, creating something sultry, satisfying and stirring. The very best of what can be.

     And then back awake, scanning the radio, driving I-16 to I-75 to I-24. Five hundred miles with two bursts of hail, to pay some bills, wash some clothes and go to the airport again.

     Somewhere in the blur of a 1000 miles in 24 hours, more news arrived. Bill Johnson, the twice Grammy-winning art director from Sony Nashville, a visionary Rolling Stone Art Director responsible for too many iconic pictures - including Patti Smith smudged with soot between two burning oil barrels, has passed on as well.

     Another wild creative, bon vivant, curator of love and people, a believer that the pictures had to be as potent as the music. A charming smile, a fearless sense of finding more in the crassest product.

     He was a genius, a smart ass, a mutterer, grumpy and excited. Mostly, though, he was the keeper of one of the greatest loves I've ever seen: he and his wife Cynda burned with attraction and appreciation, grace and possibilities. To see them was to know what love is.

     What love is…

     For the music, for the family, for each other. It is the currency on which everything that matters runs. Hotter, faster, deeper, more… yeah, whatever.

     Sitting shell-shocked with a French press of coffee, in a town where my values were defined, I can only wonder about how things that matter have become so transitory. I know that you can't force others to know the difference, but you can expose them and hope they recognize the gap.

     Steve Popovich did. So did Bill Johnson. They got it. And they believed it was worth fighting for. You could say it was a different time, and it was. But if their lives truly marked us, then how do you walk away when you know?

     Somewhere in the clouds that have just dumped an hour of solid rain on this slate patio beyond a picture window, I can see him in sweat pants and baggy baseball jacket laughing, thinking “Yeah, she's got it.”

     Not because he wants to be right, but because he wants people to remember… Remember the reasons why, the things that last, not even what he did. What he did is written in the books, how he lived can live on if we just refuse to accept the erosion and status quo.

     Know the difference, raise the flag. Be the standards you know, not the getting by, plastic injection-molded faux soul, pseudo-emotion pap that passes. It can be fomented via Twitter, youtube, Pandora and the rest, but it ain't built to last.

     Watching the sun come out, I consider what I know… and how strong I might be.

     While world jazz plays on the sound system, I hear a searing voice. Ronnie Dunn's power exhortation, from the chilling kid grows up country-gospel witness “I Believe.”

     “And you can't tell me all this ends/

     “With a long ride in a hearse…”

     Surely, no. Surely, no. If we live to believe we're leaving something behind, then consider the lives that have touched your's, and believe. Sad as I am, raw as I will be for a while, I do. And that, in this puddle of pain, is a pretty great truth to hang onto.