The last waltz

When the world goes dark for a spell, and it often does, I look to blues clubs to satisfy the longing in my soul. Here in Cleveland, I’ve got my pick of the scene, but none as fine as the Bad Boys of Blues jam night each Thursday at Brothers Lounge. They’ve been at it since 1994.

Over the years, I’ve spent countless nights at Brothers with those guys—Michael Bay on guitar, Michael Barrick on bass and Jim Wall on drums. They rotate guest singers on the mic each week. Together, they’re one of the greatest live bands I’ve ever seen. If you come around the neighborhood, I’ll bet you a shiny nickel that you’ll walk away from their set shaking your head in elated disbelief. You’ll feel good. You’ll want more.

I’ve been at this for a while, and I’ve never lost a nickel.

When I was a young boy growing up in suburban Cleveland, my dad would bring me and my brother to his guitar lessons on West Boulevard. We’d trundle up the stairs to a sparsely arranged apartment, where Bay taught his students and fell deeper in love with the guitar. He wore a long ponytail back then. He plied us children with musical trinkets and Beanie Babies. These days, he keeps what little hair is left closely cropped.

“I remember when you were this tall,” he says, back in the present, holding his palm waist-high anytime I catch him after a set and lay out the latest headlines from my life. Got a dog at home now; quit my job at the paper; living downtown now; hell, Michael, I’m getting married, and who would have thought? He looks on with Stoic pleasure, the glimmer of wisdom in his blue eyes. “I’m happy for you.”

I began spending some serious time with Bay in 2013 when I embarked on a long profile of him for the local alt-weekly. At the time, it was the most in-depth project I’d taken on. I hung around the Bad Boys jam nights to observe, lingering in dark corners. This was the first moonshot I’d taken at the paper, a stab at a story that I felt revealed a deeper level of the Cleveland community. I love music dearly, and as I grew up I realized that Bay’s outlook on life jibed heavily with a gentle, rooted outlook on life, something I admired from afar as I was honing my own chops as a creative-type out there in the world. We met at Vietnamese restaurants and at his home studio in Tremont for most of the interviews, talking for hours about his work as a musician and what he’d learned along the way. I asked him about the meaning of it all, trying to find something profound in the commonplace moments of a musician’s drift through the day-to-day. What were the stakes? What can a life spent playing guitar tell the rest of us about ourselves?

“This might be the last time I ever play,” Bay said in his studio once, effecting a hypothetical onstage. “This may be the last performance ever. If I knew that, would I think about something else, would I be someplace else, would I care less about this, would I pull back? No. If this was the last thing I was ever going to do as a performer, I would put everything I had into this moment. One day, it will be my last performance. Hopefully, not for a very long time. But this could be it.”

Seven years later, when I walked into Brothers on March 12, 2020, there he was, setting up his amp and preparing for work. Barrick and Wall were with him, gathering themselves. That night, the guest was jazzy lounge singer Becky Boyd. What luck! She’s a dynamo! This felt right. I took a seat at the empty bar and settled in for an evening of music.

The Bad Boys jam nights are a weekly hub of the local music community, events where rookies and vets alike can perform together and cut their teeth in front of a rowdy, loving audience. It’s a supportive space. The Bad Boys play an hour-long set, and the rest of the night is turned over to the scene. Bring your guitar, bring your bass, your harmonica, your maracas, whatever: All are welcome. As the night goes on, Bay groups together musicians with the same general experience level, playing ringleader and building impromptu bands. These events are a sort of magnetic force for musicians seeking camaraderie in the best of times. For those musicians, it’s critical to have this venue to develop your craft. And even at the bar, as an observer, it’s pure fun. On March 12, we were far from the best of times, however, and we needed music badly. Things were falling apart outside.

Earlier that day, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine had described an imminent order prohibiting “mass gatherings” of more than 100 people. The clanging mechanics of state government were mobilizing suddenly and rapidly against the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., against the spread of COVID-19 and its inevitable horrors in the American health care system. The borders of our lives were rearranging themselves quickly. The governor’s order was shocking, although not entirely surprising.

I’d been watching the disease with a growing wariness since the first reported case in the U.S. landed in the newspapers in late January, far out west in Seattle. I became intimately familiar with the New York Times app and the vaporous blush of the date appearing on the screen. “Thursday, March 12, 2020.” If that feels like another era by the time you read this, it may as well be.

I watched maps of the U.S. burst into fresh pox each morning. New York City. South Beach. I counted rolls of toilet paper in our closet. Is seven gonna be enough? I held my head in my hands, and then remembered to keep my hands off my face. I parsed event contracts and rescheduled a wedding with my fiancée.

The pace of it was astonishing.

Earlier that week, Ohio recorded its first positive COVID-19 tests: three cases plotted vaguely in greater Cleveland on March 9. It had landed on our shores, as we knew it would. We’d known all along, of course. By March 24, the state of Ohio had tallied 564 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths. This was far from the worst scenario in the U.S. (where New York State is listing more than 25,000 confirmed cases), and that’s due in part to DeWine’s aggressive posture against this disease. He was the first U.S. governor to ban gatherings of more than 100 people, effectively shutting down the state’s entertainment business. It almost seems quaint now.

“This is an attempt to make sure everyone understands that we cannot be gathered together,” DeWine said during his March 12 press conference, a daily event that even by then had become a must-watch for anyone in the state with a passing interest in their own safety. “We all have to take care of each other as we move forward. We are going to get through this, and we’re trying to get through it without losing too many of us.”

I tuned into these briefings with steadily cementing awe. Where I didn’t register outright surprise at the governor’s actions, I felt a belly-deep jolt of shock. The ripple effects of the pandemic were staggering. With each passing hour, what comes next?

And so, with the executive order hanging over our heads the next day, I figured this may be the last night for a good while that I’d be able to flee into Cleveland’s west side and seek refuge at a blues club. On Twitter, I shared the details of local venues hosting their supposed final shows—small, independent clubs that could use all the help we might conjure on this strange night. It felt like flouting the emergent law on one hand, while lifting up a threatened community on the other. It felt like a vulnerable thing to do, a possible mistake.

I’d planned on checking out Kendall Street Company, an upstart jam band out of Charlottesville, Va., here in Cleveland for the first time, playing Beachland Tavern that night, but as I scanned the local music listings for that Thursday I figured I should probably clock in at my old haunt and hang with the Bad Boys of Blues. Kendall Street Company performed to four people that night, according to Beachland Tavern owner Cindy Barber. The Bad Boys of Blues saw maybe 25 people in the bar that night, by my count. Nowadays, we tell stories in numbers.

“Thank you so much for coming out,” Boyd said as the band fell into place. She took a slug of beer. “We appreciate your support of musicians in this town.” The small crowd clapped. At the bar, I listed to starboard and attempted to keep a six-foot radius between myself and anyone else.

The night’s setlist mixed joy with sadness, and each song’s improvisational textures were better than the last. I thought I might only stay for one song, just pop my head in and raise a glass to the band, but I couldn’t peel away from the music. It felt good. The Aretha Franklin tune was spellbinding. Here’s how it went down:

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

“All of Me” by Frank Sinatra

“Summertime” by Ella Fitzgerald

“God Bless the Child” by Billie Holliday

“Wayfaring Stranger” by Johnny Cash

“Girls Night Out” by Becky Boyd & Tim Matson (the night’s only original)

“River’s Invitation” by Aretha Franklin (with a fine “Come Together” tease at the end)

I worked my way through a few Stone IPAs as the set went on. It was jarring, though, catching snippets of the same conversation from everyone else in the room. Between songs, they were all talking about it. A couple to my left was even discussing a weekend trip to New Orleans—and this on the same day I’d canceled my New Orleans bachelor party plans! I began to feel guilty even being out here in the first place. We were all on the same page, but we were reading the whole mess totally differently.

Still, I’d come for something important.

The way that the Bad Boys jam is by taking turns soloing within the structure of a given song. And, let’s just be clear here, they tear it up, alternately shredding and dipping into deep emotional waters, dynamic tempos flaring across each composition, but the backbone of the song is always there. Barrick, a trained trumpeter from his time in the military, tends to use his solos as an exploratory flange drive-by on four strings; he draws unbelievable sounds out of his bass, sounds that might resemble a mothership landing at twilight. Wall will usually get down into one solo each night, taking the skins on a proggy journey far from the foundational beat (but if you count carefully, you’ll find that he’s hovering above the time signature all along). And Bay will deliver the goods on guitar, whatever the moment is calling for, flipping chord progressions and lilting melodies with the ease of a monk. It’s fine craftsmanship.

In times of great duress and in times of great clarity, I turn to music. Without it, I don’t know if I’d have another proper release valve. What, drugs? Endurance sports? I’d be stuck, hung out to dry without an anchor for my mental health. I need these moments with myself and a song, and it’s better still when the band is onstage, working through the same moment that I am.

I worried about a lot of things that night. It was clear that the coronavirus outbreak was not diminishing; all the social distancing in the world would only “flatten the curve,” we were told. And, yes, my fiancée and I battened down the hatches for good when I got back home, curled up with our dog and stayed put. We wanted to be part of the greater social attempt to smother this disease. We wanted to do our part. But, no, it was clear that things were going to get worse in America.

In the meantime, the service industry was going to collapse. These little grottos of creativity and employment were going to fall on hard times—immediately.

On March 15, 2020, DeWine ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants in Ohio, effective at 9 p.m. that night. By then it was the weekend, and I’d been staying in the apartment with my fiancée, Bridget, for a few days. We tuned in to the afternoon press conference, knowing that the inevitable was here. And we didn’t disagree with the governor’s steady leadership, but the impact of it all was incredible.

The complete inevitability of DeWine’s latest order spilled out from the TV. Bridget and I took it in, sitting four stories above West 6th Street in downtown Cleveland, where only hours before we’d watched bartenders and servers wheel dollies of ice and beer into bars for big St. Patrick’s Day plans. Green streamers everywhere. Green balloons. It was disorienting. No more parades. No more shows.

After the Bad Boys set a few nights earlier, I’d bumped elbows with Bay before asking him what he thought of all this. This might be the last gig for a while, no?

“Oh, it’ll be all right,” he told me.

What we think, we become. And what more was there to say?

On March 22, the governor formalized the next phase of our response to the disease in Ohio: shelter in place, stay at home, and that’s an order. All non-essential businesses would close. And while I couldn’t argue with any of this, it felt more and more like everything was essential. If you’re reading this and it sounds glib, please know that we were still in the early throes of it. We were adapting as quickly as we could. Everything we’d known—it was all essential to all of us.

Bridget and I by then had become deeply familiar with our apartment. The nooks and strange crannies we’d never scrutinized. We’d built out corners of the living room as our makeshift offices, often finding ourselves roped into overlapping Skype meetings, chattering over each other to explain some inscrutable detail of the latest project at work. Our dog milled about. We cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. We looked out the window. We spent long evenings on the phone. We talked about the wedding, about the future.

Before all of this, I’d often catch a nightcap show around town somewhere. I’d duck out to see about some music. My years at the alt-weekly had kept me tapped into the city’s great vein, close to the heat of local bands and the blues. I felt lost without it. And as the press conferences piled on, it was alarming how swiftly everything changed. Hours were measured in weeks, as everyone was keen to joke about on Twitter. I commiserated with basketball fans cast adrift without their sport. We drank heavily and chatted over Skype about the things we hoped would come back to us soon. It was too much to talk about the oppressive, horrific human cost that hung above us all.

And I guess the point in writing all of this is to leave a record of just a few things I was thinking about in those early days: the things that mattered and the things I missed. I wanted to tell you about how I was doing before it slipped further way.

It’s clear that everything is going to continue to change, and, of course, that was always how it was. The moment ends. Another one begins.

In the last song of the Bad Boys’ set, each night for the past 26 years, here’s how it would go, back when we had our rituals: Barrick swerves abruptly into a jaunty bass line and Wall flushes some nice cymbal work, dusting a sort of game-show theme while Bay moves to the mic. It’s the end of the set, and he’s going to lay out the rules for what comes next, the actual jam night proceedings. He’s going to ground us in something greater.

“Good evening, Brothers Lounge! Is anyone having a good time?”

The crowd cheers, roars, claps.

“Is anyone having a helluva good time?”

Clapping, roaring, cheering, but louder now, more earnest in some way.

“In case you were wondering, our guest and host is the fabulous Becky Boyd!

“On bass tonight, the irrepressible Michael Barrick!

“On drums, the outstanding Jim Wall!

“My name is Michael Bay, and we are the Bad Boys of Blues.”

And on this point he grips the neck of his guitar and works a little riff into the mix, joining his friends in a brief jam. It doesn’t really matter what you’re playing, just that you’re making music in the moment before it all slips away. Then Bay goes back to the mic.

“So, it’s Thursday. It’s jam night! If you want to play, you’ve got to see me. If you don’t, you’ve got to stay all night. Those are the rules! And while we’re here, we’re gonna remember three things. No. 1: Here at Brothers, all the guys are good-lookin’. It’s true! Just ask ’em. No. 2: Here at Brothers, all the beer is cold. Have a whole bunch! Tip your server well! And No. 3: Here at Brothers, when you take time to check out all the lovely women who are here tonight, take your time, walk up to them, introduce yourself. And as you do, remember one thing: They’re all my sisters, so if you can’t treat ’em right, don’t treat ’em at all!

“And with that, jam night begins.”

 

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