Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The Dead Songwriters Society

Eric Taylor, 1949-2020.

Kenny Rogers died on Friday. I didn’t know the man, of course, but I know the music. He recorded a song by my friend Bat McGrath, and seemed like a nice guy. In an interview some years ago, I asked if he’d ever been in a bar fight. Short answer: No.

Eric Taylor also died last week. I interviewed him twice over the last two decades, and it never occurred to me to ask if he’d ever been in a bar fight. But he’d been in plenty of bars, that seemed obvious.

The first time I saw Taylor was 2001 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. I’d never heard of the guy. He blew me away. His songs were deep and troubled. That southern Gothic triptych of whiskey, murder and the Bible. And he did two songs by Townes Van Zandt. Before starting each one, Taylor pulled a hip flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and took a long swig.

I was pretty excited, about 12 years ago, when My Friends Rick and Monica announced that they had booked Taylor for their first house concert. Rick called and asked if I knew where he could get some beef jerky. That was one of the things in Taylor’s tour rider. Beef jerky.

And bourbon. A bottle of bourbon was in the rider as well.

I called Taylor before the show, and recalled for him how I had seen him that night in Austin, and noticed he had taken a drink from his flask before doing the two songs by Van Zandt. Was that a silent tribute to his old friend, who died in 1997 of cardiac arrhythmia, driven by his substance abuse?

No, Taylor said, in a business-like tone. “I like to drink.”

The house concert was a success, the room packed with 50 people. The deeper into the show, the deeper into the bottle of bourbon before him, the deeper Taylor went into his songs. Then it was like someone flipped an unseen switch, and Taylor was gone; now he was a guy with a pocketknife, cleaning his fingernails on the courthouse steps, waiting to drive Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe away from their marriage and on to the next metaphor.

Then the bourbon was gone, but the show wasn’t over. Rick had to scramble, but found a bottle of Chivas Regal. And the show continued.

Taylor hung out with Van Zandt for years, haunting the Houston clubs. Good times, hard living, stunning words. Writers who invented great characters that say true things. Fellow writers, like Lyle Lovett, know what a good song sounds like and smells like. Lovett’s recorded a few Taylor songs. Joan Baez, too. And Nanci Griffith; you’re writing weapons-grade material if your ex-wife records your songs.

Taylor came back to town a couple of times more, playing Abilene Bar & Lounge. He looked a little different. More at peace, perhaps? He filled me in on his long and erratic medical history. The heart attack he’d had years earlier, the triple bypass, the rehab. Even the time he’d spent counselling addicts. That might sound like asking Satan advice on curbing your sins, but Taylor was speaking from experience.

So there was Taylor again, onstage at Abilene, gently strumming his guitar, like you would pet an old dog, talking about his friend Bill Morrissey. Telling the story about how Bill, an intense songwriter in his own right, had stopped at a motel for the night in Dalton, Georgia. And later someone heard Bill’s dogs barking, he often traveled with his dogs. And they went to go look, and you knew this story would end badly.

Then Taylor kind of slipped into the background, and Bill Morrissey took his place. “I oughta stop drinkin’, but I don’t know why,” Morrissey moaned/sang. “Yeah, I’ve been through this town before,” he said, looking around Dalton. “It’s got a four-way stop, and a liquor store.”

Before the show, Taylor was telling me about how no one was surprised when Van Zandt died. Or when Morrissey died. The struggle. The sadness. The introspection.

A few of years ago, I asked the Nashville songwriter David Olney about Taylor. They ran together for years, raised hell. Olney was another guy who crawled inside his characters when he sang about them. “His music is so much him, I think he pays a price,” Olney said. “I think anybody pays a price to write music that stark.”

That price tag hangs on a lot of songwriters. The Dead Songwriters Society.

Van Zandt, Morrissey. Just a couple of months ago, Olney. Scroll back not too far in these blogs, back to Jan. 22, and you can read about Olney. He died onstage, in mid-song.

And now, Taylor has died, at age 70. On the same day that songwriters in Nashville were playing at a tribute to Olney. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Taylor’s heart that finally gave way. Or, maybe not surprisingly, it was liver disease.

I remember what Taylor said to me the last time we talked. “Sometimes, the most interesting people in the world will break your heart.”

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This Planet is Doomed

The Austin I love. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Five in the morning at the Rochester Non-International Airport, and I am sitting next to my fellow passengers to be, eavesdropping. One of them seems like a nice-enough guy. He’s telling some people he’s just met that he’s been to Europe. Amsterdam feels dangerous, he says. Too many foreigners.

But when in Amsterdam, Isn’t he the foreigner?

Fresh perspective is always in order. I can see better at 33,000 feet.

On my way to the airport, I’d stopped at the 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of unsweetened ice tea, because I know the airport prices are outrageous. But at the security checkpoint, the bottle was confiscated. The security guy looked at me with disdain as he flipped my iced tea into a trash can, alongside containers of orange juice, soft drinks, carbonated water and other potentially dangerous chemicals. Now I have a new bottle of iced tea, acquired through proper channels. A kiosk on the other side of the De-Hydration Zone. I paid $4.75 for that bottle of unsweetened ice tea. It was excellent. And I felt safe.

As is usually the case when taking some time off, I drop into a news blackout. With my brain no longer distracted by the world’s latest tragedies, I’m free to think in non-sequiturs as I soar into the sky.

I usually wake up with a piece of music running through my head. There’s usually no explanation for what I’ve tuned into. This morning it was the theme from Hawaii Five-0.

This airplane is an MD 90, which takes me back to college, and MD 20/20. A sweet wine by Mogen David, we called it Mad Dog 20/20. It tastes like it was distilled overnight.

Whenever I get too big of a head about my status in this community – big-shot writer – I get on an airplane. After just a few minutes, I look down at the ground and remind myself that we are now out of range of my public radio news reports, commentaries and blog. The people in those tiny, tiny houses do not know me, they have never read or heard a word from me.

Up here, way up here, I look out the window and carefully observe the wings that are keeping this airplane aloft. They look flimsy, a little too bendy. The wing I’m looking at has a black dot on it, about the size of the drain in your bathtub (No, I probably haven’t been in your bathroom, but bathtub drains seem to be pretty standard). Next to the dot, I can read some stenciled words: ICE SENSOR DO NOT PAINT. Just below that, with a small arrow pointing at what we non-aeronautics engineers would call the flaps, is another set of stencils placed every few yards along the length of the wing: NO STEP AFT. These are a set of warnings to work crews, suggesting they watch their step, so as to not accidentally disable some of the technology that we might be needing at 33,000 feet. Those words also get me to thinking. Aren’t the men and women who prepare these airplanes for flight properly schooled in not slopping paint over an electronic sensor, and to please not stomp on delicate moving parts?

I’m not afraid to fly. But I don’t want to die trying.

From my window, the United States of America looks bleak. Take that as political commentary, if you must.

By the way, I like this pen that I’m using to take these notes. A nice, steady ink flow. It’s the Pilot G-2 07, if you’re interested.

It’s been five or six years since the last time I was in Austin. I’ve always loved the music, the food, the bats whirling out from beneath the Congress Street Bridge at dusk. The characters sauntering along, many walking very happy-looking dogs. The old guy with dreadlocks falling down the back of his head, stopping just an inch or two from the sidewalk. Margaret has been here for a few days before I arrive, and has already warned me that the city has changed dramatically.

The capitol building in Austin, now dwarfed by the 21st century. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

It has. Spectacular high-rise buildings, all shiny glass, have pushed their way into the now unfamiliar skyline. Many of the shops, filled with smart new art or rusty horseshoes or Cuban guayabera shirts that once belonged to someone’s uncle, are gone. Threadgill’s, one of the rattle-bangy music venues and restaurants of South Austin, is closed, the space soon to be a towering condo. Jon Langford, the charismatic leader of bands such as The Waco Brothers and The Mekons, used to have his artwork hanging in a quirky gallery called The Yard Dog. It is dark as well, a sign posted on the door telling former customers that the owners could no longer afford the rent.

This doesn’t feel right. Forcing out the merchants who once gave life to these streets. But what city official would say no to these millions from heaven?

Some stuff’s still here. I stop at Waterloo Records and buy a vinyl album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Thunder of the Gods, and a book of Sun Ra’s Afro-Futurist poems. The Skylark looks like it was built out of sheet metal, with a ceiling of varying sizes of planks and duct tape. It’s afternoon, but so dark inside that I can’t see the Shiner Bock in front of my face. But I can hear the blues singer.

We’re staying at Our Friends John and Denise’s house. Standing by the pool, high up on the hill on the other side of Barton Creek, you can see a house owned by Sandra Bullock. One of them, anyway.

Denise has a shrine to The Monkees. I think that’s pretty cool. She knew them. We’re sitting outside drinking coffee, talking about the spirituality stuff we used to read in college. I mention Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Denise suggests Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. We all agree that the Carlos Castaneda books were bullshit. John disappears for a few moments; when he comes back, he has three Castaneda paperbacks in his hand. I thumb through Journey to Ixtlan:

We hardly ever realize that we can cut anything out of our lives, anytime, in the blink of an eye.

Really? It’s that easy to cure cancer? Or fix your car’s transmission?

The legendary Continental Club is still here, a dam holding back the total condo takeover of South Congress Street. There’s a blues quartet playing, young guys, The Peterson Brothers. I’m enthralled.

My feet have been aching for new boots. The Austin streets are full of them. I fell for a pair of size 13 black Luccheses They cost $450. I have never paid that much for an item of clothing. Never, ever. In fact, I once bought a car for less than that. Nevertheless, I bought the boots. I’m betting they’ll last longer than that car.

That night I have a dream that I’m in a record store and buy a strange-looking album of electronic music for $33. Someone says to me, “Why would you do that?”

Alejandro Escovedo’s dog. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Sunday at Maria’s Taco Express, it’s the Hippie Church Breakfast. One of my favorite Austin musicians, Alejandro Escovedo, strolls in, with a very cool-looking dog on a leash. I scratch the dog behind his ears. Escovedo asks if I have a dog. “Yeah, a Weimaraner,” I tell him. Escovedo is familiar with the breed. Turn your back on her for 20 seconds and she’ll clear that table of tacos.

My Friend Karen has been documenting the trip in photos. She takes a picture of Escovedo’s dog, but later realizes she didn’t bother to shoot Escovedo. She has priorities.

We go to another record store. I see a double vinyl album, a collaboration between the minimalist composer John Cage and Sun Ra. John Cage Meets Sun Ra. It’s the entire live show put on in 1986 by the two avant-garde giants. And priced at $36.99, it’s damn near my dream come true. I buy it.

Chicken-shit bingo! Photo by Margaret Spevak.

The Derailers have been a pretty slick countrypolitan band for years, but the shine’s worn off a little; now they’re the house band for Sunday afternoon’s Chicken-Shit Bingo at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Here’s how Chicken-Shit Bingo works: There’s a big cage with squares marked on its floor, bar patrons buy the squares, someone gets one of the chickens out their pen in the back yard and shoves the chicken into the cage. After a few minutes – the chickens have been eating Cheerios – the chicken poops on a square, and a winner is announced. I suggest an arena-sized upgrade would be Cow-Shit Bingo, and my friends seem willing to consider it.

I’m on an airplane again, Austin to Detroit. Then the connection to Rochester. I’m looking out the window next to me. We’re climbing over a dark Detroit, and the guy in the aisle seat isn’t looking too energetic. Thirty seconds after takeoff, he suddenly jerks his head toward the floor and barfs. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to pack my new boots in my suitcase, rather than wear them on the plane. After a few moments, the women he came on with, who’s sitting between us, looks at me and silently mouths, “I’m sorry.” No need for me to say anything: There’s an air-sickness bag in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me. On it, it says “Hope You Feel Better.”

Everyone has their own personal TV screen mounted on the back of the seat in front of them, 15 inches from their faces. I’m the only one who doesn’t turn it on. All of the adults are watching Fox News or Transformer movies or Pixar movies of kids with huge, round eyes. I pull out my new Sun Ra book, This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra, and read:

all governments

on earth

set up by men

are discriminating

but the government of death is a

pure government

it treats all in an equal manner

it is a startling, revealing picture

of equality for all

and all in the realm of death

is nothing else but

peace

Profound. Sun Ra is no Carlos Castaneda.

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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.

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