About to go over the edge

I don’t do this too often, but back in the day I’d toss “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the speakers when I could tell we were about to go over the edge. When the walls started breathing. By the time we saw the walls breathing, it was too late to get out. And, sure, but you could say the same thing about anything, right? Once each day gets going, an entirely new universe bends across your life and there’s no way to undo it. Each day is its own chance at enlightenment. You’re in it. The only way out is in.

Now, when we’d all come out of it, talking about the way the pine trees wriggled and how the sun went all purple for a while, the big goal was to draw something meaningful out of the experience and improve our lives with that knowledge. Lift up our friends with our glowing empathy. You’re tuned in, so now what? It’s all about kindness and the trembling resolution that life will never be the same. It will never snap back. So, knowing that, how would you like to live?

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.”

 

Warning

Like most who came of age in the mid-00’s and had a passing interest in psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis, I spent a lot of time listening to Incubus. Their early stuff was on repeat in my ’93 Geo Prizm, let’s just say. And while I drifted on in my life to catch different musical waves, for whatever reason this song spun out of the cosmos toward me this week. I’m glad it did. Stuck in my head absurdly.

I guess I’d just add that my passing interest in psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis became not only a career choice but a serious therapeutic cog in the great wheel of fortune in my life. I’ve sifted through enough ups and downs to know that it all shakes out about even in the end. Of course, I could be totally kidding myself. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how maddening and tragic this universe can be. But the lessons are the same: Buckle up, brace yourself, keep your loved ones close. Listen to your heart.

We’re going to be all right.

But we’ve been warned.

Old radicals

Every Monday, while I lived in Athens and for much longer that that, Art and Peggy Gish led a lunch-hour vigil outside the county courthouse. They were calling for international peace and justice. They were local heroes, I thought, and I was fortunate enough to spend time talking with them occasionally as a writer and editor at the off-campus progressive newspaper, The InterActivist.

I’m writing an essay now that’s sending me backward to this era. It was around this time that I began to think about the tiers of society—the comfortable and the afflicted, as salty gumshoe reporters might have once said. It’s easy, once you’re looking at your jagged community with clear eyes, to see that some need help and others need to be held accountable for how their relative comfort is distorting society. Inaction breeds inequality. Inequality foments the us-vs.-them narrative that keeps us locked in wartime. The engine steams ahead. You can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are in Cleveland tomorrow night. I’m not one to get all bent out of shape over presidential politics as sport, to believe that a high office would do anything but corrupt its own electorate, but this is a simple enough decision. One set of values lifts people up. The other set of values: Well, “nothing would fundamentally change,” we’re told.

Two stories as old as time.

I hesitate to make the 2020 Democratic primary sound like the great climax of political narrative, but it seems to be a pretty obvious parable for the future. Which path does your heart lead you down as you scout the horizon line of your self-as-yet-to-be? How do you visualize a better world for your children? What story are you telling yourself about who you are?

Art and Peggy Gish were featured in a short documentary called Old Radicals. It’s terrific. A good reminder that life is both short and long, and each decision you make leads you and your community into the next moment.

McCoy Tyner

“To me, living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can’t predict what kinds of experiences I’m going to have, I can’t predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.”

That’s McCoy Tyner, who sadly passed away today. He was one of the all-time greats, a member of the John Coltrane Quartet for five stunning years and a prolific master across his entire life.

But I think about this a lot, the interplay between living and whatever practice you’re developing (music, writing, horticulture, whatever). It’s not that the work becomes/subsumes your life, but rather the work echoes what you learn in life and how you move through each moment. Are you creating something empathetic, generous, freeing?

How you live your life, then, echoes the work you’re creating and sharing with the outside world. You can create a rich inner universe by surrendering to the flow in life and work.

Then and now and what’s to come

You can buy oatmeal, kidney beans and sugar in five-gallon buckets. White rice in 40-lb. bags. #10 cans of pears, apple slices, peaches (use the syrup as a tasty dessert for your kids). You can buy canned ham, canned chicken, canned tuna, canned pork. Vienna sausages are a nice snack to eat while listening to the public health bulletins. Canned turkey. Dinty Moore stew, for when the neighborhood sweeps don’t leave time to cook a “real dinner.” The neighbors like Spaghetti-Os, but we prefer Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli. We shout inventive recipes at each other through the air vents. You can buy peanut butter in whatever size you like. Thing big. Think in months, not days. Think in years. What was the last thing you did before it happened? Where were you? Sports drink mixes, for when you’re kicking around the rubber ball in the living room and trying to explain to your kids what “soccer” was. “Football,” “baseball.” Coffee beans, yes. We grind them by hand. You need to seek out new hobbies, living like this. Have you tried counting to a million yet? You can buy coconut oil in five-gallon buckets. We eat a lot of seeds now. We peck at things. We watch warily through our curtains, through the bars. Before it happened, we didn’t know what “powdered eggs” were. Don’t forget about salt. You don’t understand how important salt is going to be. “10 pounds iodized salt per person per year.” You need to think in years. You need to think in decades.

Primary season

Today’s the last day to register (or update your registration) to vote in Cuyahoga County. The primary is March 17. If you believe the hype, I’ll be crawling over St. Patrick’s Day floats and half-in-the-bag cops on Public Square to get to my polling place. Whatta town!

But I write this mainly to say that something sinister is happening in the Democratic wing this year. Surprise! I’d recommend pulling your copy of “Manufacturing Consent” off the shelf and reading up on a few of the basic tenets of corporate media decision-making in this country. It’s nothing new! This is cold, hard, circle-the-wagons political news programming. It comes from a place of fear and kowtowing incompetence. It’s a virus that infects newsrooms all over the country, often attacking the spineless “political content producers” who slept through ethics class back in undergrad. And, right about now, it feels more damning than it has in quite some time.

The discussion of “frontrunner” status alone has been almost unbelievable to watch. The discussion of “socialism” has been a perfect example of how we use memetic templates to talk about reality. It’s like social media preempts real life now! Surprise! The complete inability to grasp the stakes of the hour — our global climate crisis, the movement of refugees and immigrants seeking safety across borders, the rise of white nationalism in dying republics, the very idea of what *words* mean — well, good luck finding your way through that thicket if you turn on your television or open up your three-page weekday newspaper, to say nothing of the overwrought garbage on your newsfeed (hi!).

The cartoonish possibility of two billionaire henchmen squaring off for political power in November is too much to bear. It’s so of-its-time that we may as well give away next year’s screenwriting Oscar right now. If I sit for too long on this topic, my eyes begin to cross and I start instinctively grasping for my unborn children.

We can help put a stop to all of this in Ohio on March 17.

And you know what? Go ahead and pull your copy of “Aesop’s Fables” off the shelf while you’re at it. It’s all there, too.

“A groom used to spend whole days in currycombing and rubbing down his horse, but at the same time stole his oats and sold them for his own profit. ‘Alas!’ said the horse. ‘If you really wish me to be in good condition, you should groom me less and feed me more.'”

Charles Portis

“I was driving across the state at the time, very fast. There were signs along the approaches to town advertising cheaper and cheaper motel rooms. The tone was shrill, desperate, that of an off-season price war. It was a buyer’s market. I began to note the rates and the little extras I could expect for my money. Always in a hurry then, once committed to a road, I stopped only for fuel, snake exhibits, and automobile museums, but I had to pause here, track down the cheapest of these cheap motels, and see it. I would confront the owner and call his bluff.”

What a voice! What a ride!

I’ve got to present a piece of nonfiction to a workshop in a few weeks (elements of the craft and so forth), and I’d been sort of vacillating among a few. Now, though, I may need to roll with this down-and-out doozy from Charles Portis, who died today. 86 years old. Five novels. Totally off the radar of the literary establishment, for whatever it’s worth. A true original.

I’ve now got that weird sense of melancholy that will chase me all day, the bummed-out feeling that another legend has passed on and the bittersweet thanks that I’ve still got a bunch of his stuff unread on my bookshelf at home. I’d only dug into Portis last summer when a good friend recommend The Dog of the South. And I loved every word. He was a master in writing with real wit and effortless humor that can only come from the soul.

I’m glad he told me to read that book last year, and I’ll leave you with this, wise and tasteful friends: Go read some Charles Portis. Now. Tonight. Don’t go to sleep tonight without getting a few pages in. Then call me in the morning.

Octavius Williams

In my latest feature (and in something of a return to form at Scene), I looking into the case of Octavius Williams. In 2011, Williams was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2019, the judge and prosecutor let him walk out of prison, free, but still dogged by felony convictions that have no basis in fact.

It’s a story of how elected officials mete half-measures of justice and how local voters end up accountable for the discretionary decisions that make up the criminal justice system. It’s a story of how one 27-year-old man is finding his way back into world where the rest of us have been this whole time, trying to pick up the pieces of the nine years we stole from him.

Check it out. Thank you.

Herman

Originally published April 5, 2019:

I meant to do something specific with this piece, but then I left town for Las Vegas and spent my week talking with a lot of smart cannabis growers about how this intoxicating plant could play a role in human empathy and in the very process of death, and then I got sick and spent a night drinking at the Wynn with good people and then I came home and figured I’d share it anyway. It’s about what happened after the 2016 NBA Finals.

“Herman”

It’s easy enough
To walk cracked concrete walks on 69th
Herman
65th to Lorain and back
Pleasant, even, when the day bears no aim
No sunrise wisecrack game
No need to be any more
Than being

What day is it again? (What year is it?)
No feeling in my feet
For all the fleeting footsteps
Baked into the street, the memories
“The Block”
And that one time the kids down the street ran the play
Over and over
For decades, it seemed

I used to live there, there, there
Nodding along to past summers
And time spent listening to hymn
From Mt. Carmel, ringing in our ears
Bells,
I mean, the chiming
And Forrest the hound was always there
To lick a wound or a child’s face

When the train comes through
You’ll feel it in your eyes and in the windows
Rattling Norfolk Southern
Like your dad used to talk about
A glass of whisky on the kitchen table
Neat,
Of course, the way you drink it now
And you drink it deep

The lake’s still there, I see
Nothing changes
Water’s warmer, I suppose
I see
Pleasant, even, before you get to thinking
And rolling the idea in your mind
How it’s all different in the end
Even if the sunset comes again

Back up the hill
Twisting ‘round and through the tunnel
Stars are out now
Shining on a map of the United States of America
Shining on a map of a life splayed outward forever
69th and up a set of stairs
A comfort, a home, bespoke
And then – gone!