Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Van Ronk's Last Cigar and Other Fables

Dave Van Ronk's last cigar is now just a small circle of ashes scattered around a bush in the middle of a park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That's where songwriter David Massengill smoked it after holding onto it for a couple of years. Van Ronk gave it to him shortly before he died in 2002. It was Dave's last cigar by his own admission, dug from the back of a dusty shelf at a party. Massengill, being the true sentimentalist, just couldn't smoke his friend's parting gift without due ceremony. He thought of smoking it often, but the cigar took on legendary significance among a close circle of mutual friends, so he couldn't. There were anniversaries and other times when it almost seemed proper, but no.

Finally, almost burdened by the acquired weight of it, one night on the road he said "what the hell"... in Grand Rapids of all places (I was too entertained by this tale to ask him why he'd brought the cigar from NYC to Michigan). He partook of the sacred rolled leaf with a friend who was also a songwriter. There they shared it in reverence, blowing smoke rings at the moon and invoking Dave's ghost. Then they gathered up the tobacco ash, every speck of it, and made a gray ring on the earth around a bright shrub in loving tribute to a musical legend. Thus was a small piece of Van Ronk's history laid to rest under a conspicuous bush in Michigan in the form of a big fat cremated cigar.

Now, try to forget this simple story. If you're like me, that may be a difficult thing to do. Fortunately my friend David Massengill has turned it all into a beautiful tribute song on his latest CD "Dave On Dave" just in case you manage to forget it.
"We took to the road and he showed me the ropes
'Never count the house* kid, keep dreaming your hopes
And keep an eye open for the bizarre'
Lessons I learned from Dave Van Ronk's last cigar"
(Copyright 2007 David Massengill Music ASCAP)
(*i.e., don't count the number of people in the audience)
The story and the song both demonstrate that it's the quirky romance of life that makes it all worth talking about in the first place. It isn't the mundane rituals of our day, not the false romance we like to delude ourselves with-- the cliched candles and wine; not the ruts we're stuck in or the dashed dreams.

It may be too idealistic of me to expect this of everyone else, but before I write my next song I'll ask myself if I have a story to tell. Is the story worth repeating, and would I tell it to a stranger in a bus station at midnight?

If you have one, and if you would tell me, I will listen. Give me the strange, the beautiful, the haunting, the unlikely. I'm thirsty for it.

The best stories are usually the unnoticed incidents that gain significance in the story-teller's words. On the surface they are events hardly worthy of a sentence in the newspaper, yet told properly they resonate deeply and make the daily headlines seem crude and transitory. It's what we make of our tales, how we mythologize them, not how grand they are in reality.

My friend James Keelaghan sings one called "Kiri's Piano". I challenge anyone to find a simpler and quieter, yet more compelling story than this:
Kiri's Piano lyrics.

Nashville used to tell us good stories. Tom T. Hall was a master. So were Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein. Darrel Scott, when he manages to get one cut, still reminds us of what Nashville used to be in the days when artists weren't afraid to portray authentic characters in songs.

Today it's all about the artist, not the story song. Everyone seems desperate to define who they
are in a genre with 150 other singers who sound just like them, but they make the mistake of trying to create unique PR rather than having unique stories to tell and unique characters to play in their music. As a result, the differences between popular artists are as deep as page one of the tabloids. It's the fear of being swallowed by the whale of consolidated media, I suppose.

Yet I still have hope that some mainstream artist among the crop of younger torch bearers will finally realize that story-telling and role-playing made Johnny Cash, and Marlon Brando great. Oh, please stop trying to tell us how different you are in your bio, and just be different when you pick songs.

Find your stories.

Stories give us the barest implications about the mysteries of life-- the life that we never seem to fully grasp. The big picture is too large for our frame, we must have it scaled down to viewable size. A story is a way to attach tangible form to our least definable emotions.
It's part of the eloquence of life's quietest truths.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Friday, August 8, 2008

Another One Gone Too Soon

Robert Hazard 1948 - 2008

When they call my number
On the day I die
Gonna rise up singing
In the azure sky
(Lucky Hat - Robert Hazard)

It's unfortunate that I must report on another death this week. This time it's a friend and songwriting colleague who should be far better known than he is.

When I first met Robert Hazard we were both skinny kids performing on the local Philly scene. It was roughly 1979. He was the more popular performer by far, and there was no mystery as to why. I watched his shows many times, in awe of his total command of the stage. He was the kind of entertainer who made you completely believe in his fantasy for 90 minutes. He had that intriguing combination of aloofness and fire that was emblematic of many rock stars of the day. Stalking the stage like a film noir character in black leather and a thin tie, Hazard sang in a vaguely Bowie-esque style, and yes, he drove the girls crazy.

Along with his back up band The Heroes, Hazard quickly took the city by storm. When I say he took it, I mean literally. His first independently released EP sold over 300,000 copies in the Philly area alone. He was a household name here in the early 80s. By the time Cyndi Lauper cut his anthem "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" there was a sense of inevitability about Robert's success.

He signed a record deal with RCA and had some chart action with a couple of singles, "Escalator of Life" and "Change Reaction", but as many local icons learn, major labels don't always know how to make you a national star. In retrospect, the songs seem permanently rooted in the era of Wang Chung and Billy Idol, with little indication that there was a unique songwriting genius behind them. But this was just one of Hazard's artistic incarnations. A much more compelling one lay dormant.

Eventually he burned out on the image he'd created with this music and took a hiatus from full time performing during which he discovered a knack for buying and selling antiques. Except for some forays into new bands (Hombres) and independent CD releases, and the occasional reunion with various members of The Heroes, he mostly kept a low profile at his home in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

But all the while he was sharpening his songwriting skills and going back to his roots to find inspiration for what he wanted to say next. In 2006, with a new collection of songs under his belt, he found interest at Rykodisk Records. The new songs bore no resemblance to his music of the 80s. They were poetic, mature, deeply artistic and compelling. His CD "Troubadour" was released in 2007 and made a brief splash on the Americana scene with a couple of charting tunes. But the national spotlight still largely eluded him.

When I moved back to Philly in 2006 we quickly became closer friends out of mutual respect. He'd mellowed, but he still had the fire I remembered from the old days. We did a few shows together and in our talks he
eventually warmed up to the idea of the intimate, acoustic In The Round format. We booked a couple of shows to try it out, but sadly we only got to do one of them.

It was a mild June night in Doylestown. We'd brought the wonderful Terri Hendrix and the legendary Lloyd Maines up from Austin, Texas for our show at Puck. What followed was one of the best nights I've ever experienced on stage. The chemistry between all of us was magic. The songs and stories complimented each other as we traded the spotlight for two hours. It was certainly one of Robert's finest performances. He knew he had a serious medical problem that night but he put his concerns aside and gave all.

When I received the shocking news of his death on Wednesday (from post-surgical complications for pancreatic cancer) I realized immediately why that show had such a glow on it.
In retrospect it was not only his final performance, but a very brave one as well.

I've been listening to Robert's song "Troubadour" for the past couple of days. The song speaks for many of us who feel as if we're lifers on this musical journey. He's been in the same joints we've all been in, and known the highs and lows of road life as well as anyone when he sings:
"The spotlight's a light bulb, the stage is a floor
If this place don't like me there's ten thousand more"
It takes a lot of passion to live this troubadour life-- passion and a restless side. Robert Hazard was a passionate, restless soul. Now he's free.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Un-Endowment For The Arts

Ben Gall is out of business this weekend. The lights are off. The art that hasn’t been crated for storage hangs mute and neglected on the walls, and the grand piano near the stage is silent. Ghosts and the echoes of songs haunt the place, but no one goes in or out the door anymore.

Ben, an entrepreneur who originally came to America from Holland, was the proprietor of one of the area's most beloved establishments; a combination art gallery, café, and performing arts center called “The Arts Scene”. For a little over a year Ben went to work every day trying to sell wonderful three dimensional mixed media and metal sculptures, stunning photographs and colorful oils from all over the world. He supplemented his art business with his second passion; music. The art didn’t sell very well, but the music…the music often drew overflowing crowds.

It was the atmosphere, not just the entertainment they sought. This was a place where grownups could spend an edifying evening surrounded by the work of passionate people from all artistic genres. It was a cocoon you didn’t want to leave, and Ben could often be found after midnight discussing some South American painter’s work with a couple of folks who wandered in out of curiosity, stayed for the music, grabbed a bite to eat, and forgot the hour. That’s the kind of person Ben is, and to his credit no one heard him complain as he struggled to keep the doors open from month to month. In spite of a lack of art sales, he loved what he’d created in his little Mecca in the suburbs of West Chester, PA.

I did many shows at The Arts Scene. The room was always packed to capacity because Ben loved to promote musical events and music fans loved to hang out there. The Kennedys played there recently, as did Mark Erelli. But on any given night you’d be just as likely to encounter Al Bien and a group of friends gathered in a large circle in the center of the room trading songs and singing together. Sometimes there'd be an open mic night, or a showcase for a music school and it’s students. Al recognized the potential of The Arts Scene before anyone else and he brought the community together at many of his regular Wednesday night gatherings. Ben loved it all, and his fellow entrepreneurs at Café Menta in back made sure everyone was well fed.

We’ve lost a treasure this weekend, and the loss represents part of a much larger problem in America. Ben made the point when he spoke at his closing party on Wednesday evening. Our entire budget for the National “Endowment” (a silly word in this context) for the Arts in America is $125,000,000. Less than $.50 per capita. By contrast, in Ben’s much smaller homeland of Holland with its population of just 30 million people, the National Endowment for the Arts is more than ten times that amount. Think about that for a moment, and try to wrap your head around the concept that we’re willing to pay more for one morning’s cup of coffee than for an entire year’s worth of art grants. It’s nothing short of criminally negligent on our part.

What does it say about America that we don’t fund our public schools well enough to teach our youth about art? What does it say about us that we’ll spend billions on bridges to nowhere and almost nothing to help keep havens like The Arts Scene thriving?

It says we've lost the understanding that the imagination is essential for the good of all. Without programs that nurture the imagination, our youth fails to develop the inventiveness that drove America to it's peak productivity in the mid-twentieth century. Art is a product of the same process as utilitarian invention, and you can't lose one without damaging the other. We're creating a society gutted of it's creative spirit, which leaves little hope for the soul of our nation as a whole. Sure, we'll produce lots of experts in the paper chase, but few who excell in the pursuit of substance.