Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The guitar never fell from his hands

David Olney.

The first time I saw David Olney was in Austin, at the South by Southwest Music Conference. He was playing guitar and singing songs populated by unusual characters. Many of them sad. Like the French prostitute in “1917” – Olney wrote this song 18 years before the current movie of the same name – who feels sorry for the young soldier who’s spending the night, because the way the war’s going, he’ll probably be dead soon. Emmylou Harris knows good songs. She recorded that one, as well as Olney’s “Deeper Well.”

So I wrote about Olney, and he must have liked the words, because he put some of them on his web site:

“I saw Olney playing at a festival this spring and thought he looked like a fedora-sporting fiftysomething high-school principal who’d suddenly gone berserk and was using his acoustic guitar like it was a weapon. Love this crazy guy, love this record.”

Olney had a song written from the point of view of a ventriloquist’s partner, “Who’s the Dummy Now?” There’s one about a sorrowful iceberg, sad because it sank the Titanic. And one whose main character is a comedian named Jesus Christ, who travels to Earth, is crucified, and now warns his fellow entertainers that they might want to steer clear of Earth because it’s “One Tough Town.”

I couldn’t wait to get home and tell My Friends Rick and Monica about my new music discovery. I was too late. They already knew about Olney. And soon, they’d booked him for a house concert.

A few songs into that show, the doorbell rang. It was a pizza delivery. “Double cheese with pepperoni, sent by Mr. Steve Earle,” the delivery guy announced, pulling the box from his insulated bag. The packed living room, 50 people, erupted in laughter.

The pizza was a reference to a story Earle tells on a 1995 live album, “Together at the Bluebird Cafe,” recorded with Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As Earle told the story then, he was a struggling songwriter working in a Nashville pizza place. He’d squirrel away a pizza and, at the end of the night, claim it had been ordered, but no one picked it up. And he’d be allowed to take it home. But his roommate at the time, Olney, would only eat double cheese and pepperoni. And after a few weeks of the night always ending with one double cheese with pepperoni left over, the restaurant owner figured out the scam. Earle was fired.

Of course, Earle hadn’t sent the pizza to Rick and Monica’s house concert that night. It was yet another scam, perpetrated by an Olney fan, a fake pizza delivery guy who hadn’t been able to get a ticket to the sold-out show and was looking for a way in.

You reward that kind of passion. They let him stay.

After Olney had concluded the concert with a song about going to a lamp-shade store to buy one for your head, and after most of the crowd had drifted off into the night, I sat at the kitchen table with Olney, drinking irresponsibly. Red wine. I was prodding Olney for stories about Earle and Clark and Van Zandt. And his pal Eric Taylor.

Taylor and Olney had this intense philosophy about performing live, where they were not just singing songs. They’d slip into their characters’ skin, and tell the story as if the song’s protagonist had arrived in that guitar case sitting off to the side of the stage. I’ve seen Taylor a few times, he haunts his characters. Olney did as well. He could be Shakespearean in tone. At shows, he would sometimes perform an a cappella version of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Other singers and songwriters who knew him, and performed and recorded his songs, called Olney the Bard of Nashville.

Olney wasn’t exactly gossiping that night at Rick and Monica’s, as the wine did its work. He was just confirming what we all knew, or had heard. That brilliant creatures like Earle and Clark – and particularly Van Zandt and Taylor – have a self-destructive streak in them as long as the roads they travel.

And yeah, Olney said, kind of smiling. Maybe him, too.

The last time I saw Olney was a year or two ago, at Fanatics Pub in Lima. He was working on a beard. Over time, a man can get to the Walt Whitman level. Wisdom comes with that.

Sunday morning on Facebook, it was Dave Alvin, a great songwriter himself, who shared the news that Olney was dead. Like his friends Country Dick Montana and Mark Sandman of the band Morphine, Alvin wrote, Olney had died onstage.

It was at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival, in Seaside, Fla. The 71-year-old Olney was playing alongside Scott Miller, who used to be in the V-Roys, a band that was on Steve Earle’s label. And onstage as well was Amy Rigby, who frequently passes through Rochester, most recently last year playing at Bop Shop Records.

Olney was in the middle of a song. He stopped playing, said “I’m sorry,” dropped his chin to his chest, and just sat there on his stool. Dead of a heart attack.

Perhaps still stunned, filled with disbelief, but wanting to share with Olney’s fans what had happened, Rigby and Miller both wrote about it on their Facebook pages. Rigby noted that Olney never dropped his guitar. Olney’s death, Miller wrote, was “as easy and gentle as he was.”

I knew Olney only a little. At about the same level that I knew Col. Bruce Hampton, the brilliantly crazy jam-band patriarch from Georgia who was celebrating his 70th birthday at a concert in 2017 with the Tedeschi Trucks Band when he dropped to the stage. Dead of a heart attack.

Hampton’s death, and now Olney’s, is not a warning to musicians who I might want to interview in the future. I’ve talked to thousands of them over the years. Most have survived. It’s just the odds, I guess.

Tuesday night, I was at The Little Cafe to see The Spring Chickens. That’s the local trio of Steve Piper, Connie Deming and Scott Regan. Olney was on their minds as well. Piper did an Olney song, “If My Eyes Were Blind,” words dwelling on age and loss. Deming went to the piano and played a song she wrote that was inspired by seeing Olney at Rick and Monica’s. A song he played that night, “Women Across the River.” Hers is called “Perfect Sound,” and uses an image she saw while sitting in the front row, the toes of his boots. Her song used lines drawn from a “Deeper Well,” and two more lines she wrote that were pulled almost directly from “Women Across the River.”

Laughing with the women in the rain

as it makes that perfect sound

And Regan recalled having Olney as his studio guest for his morning show on WRUR-FM (88.5), “Open Tunings.” Regan said Olney asked about the baseball stadium across the street. Frontier Field. “There’s a game at 1 o’clock,” Regan said. Olney seized that small moment, and went to the game.  On Tuesday night, Regan dedicated one of his own songs to Olney, “The World Doesn’t Owe You a Thing.”

When death comes, especially in the way it claimed Olney, I’ve heard people say, “Yeah, but at least he went out doing what he loved.” That’s a hard sentiment to get behind, dying in front of a room full of people. Country Dick Montana. Mark Sandman. Johnny “Guitar” Watson, that’s how he went as well.  Tiny Tim, Piper talked about the falsetto-voice crooner Tuesday night, collapsing after entertaining a women’s club. The dance band on the Titanic. They found ways to tell stories, and live their lives, in ways that are romantic and exciting and sometimes sad.

They live like wild horses, and we watch the beauty of them as they run.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Clearing the mind in these troubled times

Run! It’s Guilala!

Sure, I’m watching. The Trump presidency looks like one of those time-lapse videos of a dead pig, where you see it being consumed by decay and maggots. Fascinating and terrifying as it is, I sometimes have to walk away for my own peace of mind. I seek normalcy through culture.

Music. I often have Pink Floyd on the stereo when I’m writing, which is happening right now. But a few minutes before this typing started, I was listening to a new piece of vinyl I picked up today at Record Archive. “John Cage presents Variations IV” sounds like a man trying to find a station on a dashboard radio while driving the car with the windows down, adding ambient sounds from the street to the mix. This is Cage trying to shake us of the notion of what composition is generally understood to be. The liner notes on the back of the album suggest this is a “music-as-experience” experiment. The sounds supplied are of each musicians’ choosing; a chart prepared by Cage creates random opportunities for sound to be applied.

It is not conducive to writing.

Books. Which one I’m reading sorta depends on what room of the house I’m in. Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is in the living room, where I can usually find a block of an hour or two to focus on this amazing story. It’s going to take me a few more months to get through those 1,000 pages. Because upstairs, on the nightstand, waiting, are the final few pages of George Saunders’ experimental novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It gets a little easier once you understand that most of the main characters are dead.

Oops, sorry, I’m a little late on this spoiler alert…

And then there’s the book My Friend Michele gave me, Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees.” That’s the one I read on the bus on my way to work. Or when I’m taking a lunch break. And when I’m on the bus on my way home from work. It’s the kind of book you can pick it up, set it down, and pick it up the next day and you’re right back in the redwoods. I am learning so much. Like, what happens to the human body when it falls 50 feet out of a tree (a lot happens, none of it good.) And redwoods are the largest living organisms on the planet, unless you count the mostly underground fungal mass, three square miles big, in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. And some biologists prefer to see that fungus as many individual mushrooms.

That kind of stuff is what biologists talk about at cocktail parties.

Cuisine? I will not eat anything until I have confirmed that it is dead.

But this self-inflating narrative that builds my case for Renaissance Man completely falls apart when the discussion moves to film. Because, I really like bad movies.

Oh, not just any bad movie. You couldn’t get me to sit through one of those Hallmark Channel things if you propped my eyelids open like Malcolm McDowell being drugged with illness-inducing drugs and forced to watch violent films in “A Clockwork Orange.” No, I want 1950s movies where the careless spread of radiation from nuclear bomb tests creates gargantuan insects. I want slow-moving actors in lizard costumes crushing Japanese cities.

Like “The X From Outer Space,” from 1967. I watched it last week. That one has it all. A team of scientists on an expedition to Mars encounters a flying saucer, which attacks it by spraying it with spores. The Earth scientists gather one of the spores and take it inside their ship, which offers the familiar, non-science special effects: Flames erupting from the rear of the spacecraft, with fumes curling up lazily, like a cigarette sitting in an ash tray. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, the tiny spore soon grows into an armor-plated chicken with glowing red eyes, 200 feet tall, weighing 15,000 tons. Not again! Poor Tokyo! Excellent use of model tanks and aircraft. Lots of tense dialogue, delivered with gritted teeth and easy-to-read subtitles. Men who dress like generals point at a huge wall map, tracking the creature’s movements with a red cut-out of the monster that they happened to have in a drawer somewhere, perhaps from when the last monster flattened Tokyo. They’ve even named it, Guilala. It moves on from Tokyo, kicking over things – what the hell’s wrong with these creatures? Now it’s up to the same team of astronauts and scientists who carelessly brought this thing to Earth to stop it. Which they do, with jet fighters – at least the ones Guilala doesn’t swat out of the sky – dousing it with something called “Guilalanium.” Which shows you how ahead of its time “The From Outer Space” is, as we haven’t even invented the stuff yet. All with a superbly out-of-place jazz soundtrack, and one of the female love interests wrapping up the film with an inexplicable comment about Guilala teaching her about love.

One year later, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released. The technological gulf between the special effects of these two films is immense.

But I don’t clear my mind with 90 minutes of lousy science fiction because I’m interested in learning something new about space travel. Or to discover how easy it is for a 15,000-ton creature to sustain itself by feeding on nuclear fuel, which is plentiful and poorly stored throughout the Japanese countryside. No, I’m here for the stuff that you never see in movies that take themselves too seriously. I’m here to watch astronauts slamming down a few cocktails and dancing on the moon.

BE THE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

The weekend, at our best, and at our worst

This weekend was us at our best.

At Abilene Bar & Lounge, Watkins & the Rapiers played a happy-hour gig on the deck behind the bar. In the sunshine, as we watched little bubbles floating past the band; it had helpfully supplied those bottles that your kids dip a loop into and blow through. Except, it was adults doing this.

Then, over to The Little Café, where The Jane Mutiny was playing. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” still resonates after all these years.

Then, back over to Abilene, where local heroes The Hi-Risers reunited for a set that had the entire bar bobbing and weaving and howling. As the band closed with a mostly a cappella version of “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” more people came in through the door. The exciting R&B rockers St. Paul & the Broken Bones had finished their show for a few thousand people at Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park at Manhattan Square.

That’s just a sampler of what people were hearing Friday night in Rochester.

Maybe you heard about what happened Saturday night in New York City. Blackout. How did people respond? Audiences at Carnegie Hall and shows all across the city – “Hadestown,” “Waitress: A New Musical” and others – spilled out into the sidewalks. As did the actors and musicians, who created impromptu shows right there.

And on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, Paul McCartney wrapped up his latest tour by bringing out an old pal, Ringo Starr, to help out on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter.” Just another magical moment.

No social media needed. No DVD, no Blu-Ray, no download needed. No cable television news, and the professional shouters. Just people, and live music.

Other amazing stuff happened over the weekend. We’re now into a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the moon.

Music, uniting us. Exploring the universe, together. Yes, this is us at our best.

What else were we seeing over the weekend?

Hundreds of people gathering downtown in Washington Square Park on Friday night for the nationwide “Lights for Liberty” vigil, protesting how we’re locking kids in cages. Separating families. Immigrants packed so tightly in cages that they can’t lie down, and after 40 days of this are locked up in a stench so powerful that government workers at the detention center – we can argue that these are concentration camps – wear face masks. Rounding up people who are here – illegally if you want to call it that – because they are fleeing terror in their home countries, and sending them back to poverty and crime.

On top of this we have a president tweeting that members of Congress who were born in a foreign country – and are now American citizens – should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump was tweeting this appalling filth on Saturday when he wasn’t busy tweeting commercials for his golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland.

Our government as a divider.

This is us at our worst. What happened? Where did we go wrong?

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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