Saturday, February 26, 2011

Night of neon, Shel memories, smiling with squeezebox queen and savoring Don Kelley & Dave Roe while young cowboy dreams

The kid with the Brad Paisley Stetson caught up just as I stepped past the statue of Elvis on the sidewalk and kept going straight, glancing, as I usually do, up the hill at the Ryman and remembering when I used to sneak in the alley door into the Opry every week.
“Man, they won’t run over both of us, I hope,” said the kid as he and I stepped --- with the little green-dude walk signals – in front of disobedient traffic and across Fifth Avenue. We both were bound uphill. He for the Masonic Lodge parking lot – where his band’s van was parked – and me to the old white Saab parked on Broadway in front of that monument.
“Me and my band are playing at Cadillac Ranch and I gotta get the van with the instruments in it and pull down there for a minute,” said the kid.
“We been playing together awhile. Mostly down in Alabama, but now we’re working hard to make it here,” said the kid.
I stopped so I could turn to him and extend my hand, introducing myself. After all, he and I had just completed a death-defying act in the middle of lawless Nashville, where red lights are mere bothers.
Stewart Halcomb laughed, easily, and met my firm handshake with his own. Sensing he might be a musician, though – although not just musicians wear cowboy hats on Lower Broad – I didn’t tighten the throttle on my hand-grip.
I reserve a slightly softer shake for guys who use their hands to play guitars and for prizefighters. I remember one of the times I hung out with Muhammad Ali, he winched when I shook his hand. Course he’d spent the prior evening beating up Leon Spinks. All I’d done was write about it and hang out with Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier and the really pretty woman who’d stepped into the ring naked.
The young cowboy and I began the gentle uphill stroll in front of the urban atrocity that is the convention center. If this one’s bad, what’s the next one gonna look like? Anyway, he went on to talk about the hard life he and his band mates in The Springs had chosen, but how they were chasing the dream that had lured so many country acts to Nashville over decades.
Yep, Hank done it this way, after all, I shrugged.
Stewart added that his band was still smoothing its edges and that, while there’s a CD out, I shouldn’t judge them by that. “We like to play live and we really don’t know yet how to record right,” said the affable kid, the leader and songwriter of a band that is aged 19-22 and that plays most nights down in Nashville’s Disney World.
I call it “Nashville’s Disney World” because it’s not the Lower Broadway that I first fell in love with 40 years ago. Course I had dark hair and a less-firm grip on reality back then. This was going to be a town that I’d write about for life. The musicians, the dreamers, the whores.
It was in a time when Roger Miller still could be found sipping coffee in an all-night diner and Shel Silverstein and Bobby Goldsboro would stop to help a young guy rescue old bricks from a road that was being “resurfaced” to asphalt. I’ve told you about that. They even helped young guy load the bricks in the trunk of the ’65 Falcon.
Same car took me all over the country for awhile. Spent a lot of time sleeping in it in the streets of New Orleans, San Francisco, San Antonio, Kerrville or next to it out at Joshua Tree. Course Wizard traveled with me. I wonder what happened to the Falcon after the engine blew? Sought out Wizard once on the internet a year or so ago and made contact. Realized then there was a plenty good reason we weren’t friends any more. No need to go into them here. Too many a--holes in the world would be offended.
But then that’s a side story for another day. Right now, I’m talking about Stewart, the nice kid with the dream. He didn’t talk just about his dream, though. He asked about mine. Yes, I still have some, even though the booger-eating Ghadafis of Korporate Amerika tried to beat them out of me… but failed.
Anyway, we talked about songwriting and people writing, about guitars and Tennessee Titans while we walked to our vehicles. I told him I’d hit his bar one night. I don’t drink nor do I ride mechanical (or even real-life) bulls anymore, but I’d like to see this kid. It’s nice when hope and optimism brighten a young guy’s face.
I had gone to Lower Broadway as a part of a magazine assignment that has taken me to music venues all over the city in the last week or so.
As I’m old and don’t drink beer, I tried to hit the places relatively early, before busy bartenders tired of offering up icy glasses of free water to the guy with the pony-tail and wearing a 25-year-old Bob Dylan concert T-shirt. That came from when he was touring with G.E. Smith. Horrible show, but I love Bob.
I actually go to Lower Broad fairly frequently. Sometimes it’s just for a walk. Sometimes it’s to relive memories. Sometimes it’s simply to wonder where I been since the days when this was my turf.
Back then it was sticky-floored peep shows and propositions from working women to join them “upstairs,” someplace above the row of neon buildings and souvenir shops that now offer up a G-rated version of Nashville for mass consumption by tourists and hockey fans.
Before the city’s real flesh was covered by Chamber of Commerce boosters and the like, a cigarette smoking writer could easily jaywalk from the Wheel to Tootsie’s, as long as I didn’t trip across some stoned loser or Willie Nelson sprawled in the middle of the street.
Tootsie’s back then was a favorite, because the Opry stars used to hang out upstairs, near the back door. I’d get there early enough to drink beer at the table next to Lefty, ET, Cash, Porter and even old Mooney.
Now, of course, it’s different. City planners helped the once run-down area get “pasteurized.” Souvenir shops and Elvis statues. A huge hockey arena and a convention center. Family restaurants even. Wouldn’t have taken a family down here 40 years ago, I laughed as a group of Japanese smiled at me when I rubbed the nose of one of the Elvis statues.
I wonder if anyone’s heard the news that Elvis actually was from Memphis? He just recorded here. His last few visits to Nashville, he stayed at the old Sheraton on Harding Place at Trousdale – about a mile from my house.
What used to be a top-quality hotel and small convention center became a seedy Ramada before being torn down to make way for a CVS. “Nashville: Where there’s a church on every other corner. A CVS or a Walgreen’s is on the other.”
A part of my mission the other night was to check out an old friend and his outfit. The Don Kelley Band is, for my money (freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…) the best country cover band in a city overpopulated by country cover bands.
But while guys like Stewart in the Springs are busy writing their own material and trying to bust into the bigs and outlive Luke the Drifter, Don is not following that dream.
Decades ago he began playing at Robert’s, not singing his own songs but the songs made famous by ET, Cash, Waylon, Tom T., Willie, Marty, Roger and even Patsy.
A good soul, he always surrounds himself with the best musicians, many of whom advance into the ranks of elite touring bands or session pickers.
Don’s not that kind of guy. He likes a steady job, a good girlfriend, his house way north of the city and his motorcycle (although he tells me he’s getting too old to ride it).
“I’m not a great singer,” Don will say. “But people kind of like what I do. I can do those Tubb and Cash songs pretty good.”
His current lineup … or really, the lineup during my visit, because it has changed … was him on the bulk of the vocals and rhythm, JD Simo on lead guitar, Dave Roe on slap bass and vocals (have you ever heard a better version of “Pretty Woman” since Roy Orbison died?) and Artie Alinkoff on drums and vocals.
It was among Roe’s last performances with the band. “I’m going to start having the weekends off,” he said, between sets, after he passed the tip jar around the house and sold and autorgraphed CDs
“I like this job, but it’s every Wednesday through Saturday, 6:30 til 10 and it’s time I did some other things. I’m gonna freelance. Like you, Tim,” said Roe, who used to play slap bass with John R. Cash.
I first met him back then. I told him he’d probably have more luck in the freelance world than I, as he’s a much better bass player. But it was good for the ego – and I admit I enjoy a nice stroking now and then (but that’s another story, too) – when Artie, Don and Dave all bragged from the stage about my writing.
“You’re brilliant man,” said Artie. “Really cool.”
Kindred spirits, I’m sure. They must toil hard to make a living out of tips and CD sales – I did buy a copy of their "best of" album. It’s not John Lennon or Johnny Cash. But it’s not supposed to be. It’s a great cover band singing other people’s songs. It makes me smile while I sit here and think.
After a couple of sets, I had to move on. I was going to a bar in East Nashville, where my favorite squeezebox player and Earl Scruggs’ grandson were playing with Paul Burch. Great show there too, though the highlight for me was – again between sets – standing out in the cold and semi-dark of East Nashville and talking to that squeezebox player.
Very few people try as hard to stay solemn when playing, only to bob their heads and smile like Jen Gunderman, who handles accordion and keyboards by night and teaches rock ‘n’ roll at Vanderbilt by day. “I used to think I needed to be, you know, a surly rocker chick,” she said. “But I really love playing. I’m so lucky.”
I wound my way out of East Nashville, trying not to run over crack dealers and prostitutes on Main Street, and pondered the evening.
Pretty enjoyable, thanks to the kid with the musical dream and the band that never stops and the squeezebox queen
And that’s despite the fact I spent a good part of the evening in Nashville’s Disney World, the now brightly lighted section of town that’s featured on Chamber postcards and marketed on "Monday Night Football" and the like.
Tootsie’s long ago was a treasure. Now it’s just a joint. And Tootsie herself is long dead. (I’ve paid my respects at her suitably simple and modest grave before, as she was an interesting woman.)
Sure, I love this new Nashville, even though I can’t find an orange neon glow proclaiming “Possum Holler” – Jones’ old club – anywhere on the skyline. But I guess I’m a relic. I kind of liked it better when a guy could buy coffee and chat with Roger Miller, turn down the advances of the whores and scoot past the peep shows for fear of catching some sort of air-transmitted sexual disease before dodging into a club where Tom T. Hall was singing for beer and laughs with the house band.
Shel Silverstein’s dead and Bobby Goldsboro moved to Florida. And the bricks, well they got displaced during the storms of life.
Still I felt energized, by the kid. Stewart Halcomb. I don’t have his CD yet, as I haven’t been to Walmart since that night.
But after a life of writing about those who chase dreams, whether as musicians, athletes, women and men of the cloth or just plain old church janitors, I’ve often had to chronicle how those dreams fell short or ended tragically.
Here’s a kid who says, with a lot of work, he’ll make it. And Nashville’s Disney World will have a brand new star.
I had the urge to go back down to the strip on my way home, buy a pack of smokes and go back into the bars.
Course I didn’t . First of all, I quit smoking 11 years ago. Besides that, I think smoking is illegal down there in Nashville’s Disney World.
It’s just running red lights and almost killing old guys with pony-tails and young cowboy singers that’s still legal.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Savage murders of teenagers, memories of friends past and lost and the April 1 miracle battle with fear inside the ferocious MRI tube

Visions of two teenagers, savagely murdered, stung my brain as it was being magnetized and resonated and otherwise probed by kindly science wizards and their crypt-like device.
Perhaps those memories, which danced with other flashbacks good and bad, were set off by that MRI’s sounds, the incessant beeping, thudding, growling, crunching noise – robots dancing in the dark -- crushing my brainwaves. And what could I do?
The sounds surrounded me, as my head was locked dead-still in a device that seemed like a hockey goalie’s helmet. My only view was the top of the tube in which I was being tortured… or examined … just inches from where the tip of my nose would be had it not been smashed inside the goalie’s helmet.
I thought about those dead kids. But other things flooded my mind. I smiled when I thought about Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times,” and the cacophony and confusion of the industrial revolution in that old B&W flick. Saw that movie in Dr. Perkins class at Iowa State University, circa 1971. “Damn near publishable in academic journals,” he wrote on my term paper that compared the movie “M*A*S*H” with the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.” Did I ever tell you I met Groucho Marx? Another story, another show. What’s the secret woid?
After film class, I’d go take a steam and then allow myself to be the “dummy” – literally and figuratively -- that Olympic gold medal wrestler Dan Gable, then a workout chum, would toss around the mats. Nope, never beat Dan….
The dead teenagers came back to my mind briefly.
But then, as the magnets ripped into my brain, I was adrift in waterfalls of color, reminiscent of the night Smokin’ Joe and I went to see Leon Russell and the Shelter People after hitching from Ames to Iowa City. Freddie King was the opener. Watch out now…..
The fact that I kept thinking about Rodney Wayne Long and Kathy Jane Nishiyama, the two slaughtered teenagers, isn’t surprising. When my mind wanders, taking inventory of my life and where I been, those handsome faces often reappear.
As do the faces of friends, a diminishing list, either due to age, death or, far too often, corporate fear.
In a phone call not long before he killed himself in a lonely Coast Guard barracks in Alaska, Tony Durr, who really was among my truest friends – oh, he lied, but he loved as well -- told me this truth.
“Tim, if you can make it through life and look back and have enough real friends to fill up the fingers on one hand, you’re lucky,” or something like that. When he emptied the pharmaceutical bottle, I lost one finger, I guess.
Anyway, I couldn’t help thinking about friendship and dead teenagers … two topics which seem to coincide in my sometimes blood-spattered life … when I was in the MRI the other day. This was the most recent reminder of the summer that won’t go away, the summer of 2010, when I lost half my house to a flood and then, before it was even finished being rebuilt, was T-boned at an intersection.
For a day or so I stumbled around, like my closest pal, Champo, used to do back in his college days as dawns approached. He and his friend, Jocko “the hippy hippy shake” expert, had good times chasing windmills and damsels who would be in distress. Of course, I was and remain Champo, though you may call me Flapjacks.
Course, I don’t drink anymore, so the stumbles bothered me. I went to the doctor last July and he said “man, you have one effin’ bad concussion, Flap, old boy.”
I said “doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take?” But there wasn’t. Time heals all wounds, even badly concussed noggins.
It was checking up on the healing process all these months later that had me jammed into the MRI the other afternoon at one of our finer Nashville hospitals and legal drug dispensaries.
I am a claustrophobic, which may account for aspects of my life, the seemly and the less-so and my reactions to smothering authority of all stripes. The likes of Shotgun Dick, Korporate China (owners of the land of the free), George W. and “Big Mac” USA Newspaper Giant – all who/which think Amerikans should be happy with “special sauce” rather than substance … almost as bad as those who allow them to continue to run the country without question.
Hell, I get almost as angry when my basketball-playing pal the Big O says he’s going to cut the budget by taking away heating supplements for the indigent, allowing old people to freeze in order to please the likes of Mr. Bean or whatever that worthless Joker of the House calls himself. Doctor, doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take?
Claustrophobia in the little tube for a half-hour is only easy with eyes closed. But to keep the thought of where I am from turning me into someone resembling the mentally twisted who think it was good to get rid of Mubarak, but we ought to back up the crown prince/emperor/torturer of Bahrain… could it be oil? Black gold? Texas tea? … Well, the first thing you know, old Jed’s a billionaire…. And there’s blood on the sands.
But the bouncing magnetos kept bringing me back to the two teenagers. Murdered. Their deaths scarred me as I orchestrated coverage for the newspaper up in Clarksville. My boss at the time was Tony Durr, by the way.
Three decades have passed since Kathy Jane and Rodney Wayne were killed by the slugs who populate society’s darkest underside. I learned, first-hand about that underside.
So, the two dead teenagers often visit me when I’m just sitting there watching the wheels go round and round. Or, perchance, if I’m lying in a contraption that’s taking magnetic images of the brain of a man who has seen too much and forgotten too little.
Fortunately, the deaths also bring back images of my closest friendships, the News Brothers, a gang of hard-smoking journalists who, by fate, had to cover the two murders as they unfolded and were solved and tried at almost the same time.
Then, as I lay there, trapped in this chamber like some sort of Michael Jackson wannabe, the brain-crunchers not only squeezed my head but began lifting my fillings … nah, I made that up …. Just my ‘magination, runnin’ away with me.
Anyway, my thoughts about the dead teenagers led me to my thoughts about that April 1, 1982, when my co-conspirator, cops reporter Rob “Death” Dollar, co-founder of the News Brothers, and I dropped our pants in the newsroom while the whole building watched.
Well, at least that’s what everyone thought was going to happen that day in history.
The word had spread, Lord knows how …. that the two young men, the associate editor and the cops reporter, were going to bring their nighttime, do-anything-as-long-as-no-one-gets-hurt, frivolity to daytime. Were these boys ready for prime time?
In those days, the hundred-plus in the building believed that we, indeed, would do anything to perhaps take the edge off what had become more Korporate-style management. My pal Tony had disappeared to San Antonio (the scene of one of his many marriages and career stops before he killed himself), Max “the Silver Hammer” Moss – a damn nice guy and great editor -- was sort of shuffled off to a second-in-command role.
Korporate crackdown had brought a new tone, where an editor, whose introductory words to the staff included “reporters are a dime a dozen” would complain that “you boys need to cut your hair” (I didn’t, of course) and perhaps we should join the Chamber of Commerce. Nothing wrong with the Chamber, but when I was back there in journalism school, they put forth the proposition that you should never be a member of a civic organization if you are a journalist. Fear of conflicts of interest. Lots of publishers and editors are Rotary and Kiwanis presidents and Chamber board members these days.
All of these stories are told more in a book I’m trying to write. And, of course, the adventures of Flapjacks and Death are spoken of, softly, whenever unemployed journalists gather over canteens of white lightning in train yards and a toothless man with one leg blows on his harp while his blue-tick hound barks and the wind begins to howl.
Anyway, back to our story: The two News Brothers, it was said, were going to come into the newsroom at 2 p.m. (the official start of our workday) wearing only boxers with hearts on them.
I don’t know how the rumor started. Of course I do, as we had assistance. Still, people believed. Perhaps even hoped, that this would happen. Some wanted it to be the act that would lead us to the door. Others wanted to just be there to witness this strange chapter in the history of two good journalists who did anything they could to get the story.
And even more than anything to try to both celebrate and forget the two murdered teenagers.
Anyway, there’s more to it. But everyone from the Big Guy, our publisher, to the composing room crew to the ad department to the circulation and press room guys showed up at the precise hour, lining the newsroom, looking in the windows from the hallway.
Fully clothed in our high school letter jackets and jeans, Rob in a top hat and me wearing my yellow fedora, we just walked through the crowd, looked at those gathered, shrugged and lighted up our smokes. We sat down at the computers and began to write stories before looking up and saying “April Fools.”
I’d like to say the event ended this way, with a subtle dash of cool. But suddenly two friendly coppers burst into the newsroom with a warrant for my arrest on charges of, I believe, “failing to amuse the public.”
I was hauled off in handcuffs and all who gathered were stunned as the squad car whipped away from the curb.
Actually I hadn’t been in on that part of the gag. Rob had arranged for his friends in the department to come and “arrest me” as the clincher on the joke. (I was glad the gag didn’t include the one cop we liked who enjoyed back-shooting fleeing felons and singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Again, another story.)
A few minutes later, after my release a half-block away, I strode back into the newsroom and saluted my comrade for getting the better of me.
And I waited. … for hours … for retribution …. You see, sometime in all the commotion I had stuck a “load” in one of his Kools….
So well into the evening, that cigarette exploded and my pal dropped from his chair.
We laughed. It had been a good day. For a few hours we had forgotten the faces of those dead teenagers.
Then we went back to work. Hoping the day would end so we could get to Camelot where the chief deputy would buy us drinks and spill his guts about crimes and about why he hated most journalists.
The only problem with having memories like these playing in your head while you are being scanned for brain damage is you wonder perhaps if the images will reflect years of wear and tear … and even show pictures of the dead teenagers.
The scans, surprisingly, showed I’m "normal." Doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take?